Problems of History (Article)

Nov 2018
105
Idaho
#1
Here is an interesting article I found discussing the problems of history, and especially popular history.
The accessibility of history has one great advantage: intellectual freedom. Everyone is free to consider the past and form their own conclusions. But it also has one significant disadvantage: ‘popular history’ and ‘good history’ are rarely the same thing. There is a considerable gulf between historical understanding in the public domain and the history written by historians. The general public can be knowledgeable and interested in the past but they seldom utilise the same standards of research and evidence as historians. Popular history is often simplified and distorted to the point of corruption. There are several reasons for this. People tend to value story over analysis. When considering the past, they like clear and simple explanations. They like to assign responsibility, liability or ‘blame’. They like interesting narratives with moral heroes, immoral culprits and satisfying endings. They also like to think their own nations and societies as more advanced, civilised or culturally superior than others. But as good history students know, this type of thinking is not conducive to ‘good history’. History is rarely simple or clear-cut, nor is it filled with obvious villains or fulfilling resolutions.
This is something I have noticed for decades - whenever I read a history book that was written for mass consumption or to prove some or other political/religious aim it was usually littered with errors, inventions, fables, etc. Much of 'popular history' is actually anti-history, in that it mainly serves to give impressions that are wrong and these false impressions are exactly the ones that stick with people. Why? For the same reason they're in popular history to begin with - people find them relatable, entertaining, understandable. History, as a complex slew of infinite and often completely unrecoverable events simply does not satisfy people. I would say that most popular history is bad history, and that people would know more about history if they had never read them, simply by virtue of not being utterly misinformed on almost every point. I trust that, aside from a few personal names and geographical expressions, an illiterate cowherd in rural Afghanistan 450 B.C. would know as much about medieval society as people who watch The History Channel's depictions of it.

Most human populations contain enormous economic, ethnic and cultural diversity. Because of this, any conclusion about an entire population based on a small amount of evidence is likely to be flawed. History students should be particularly wary about forming generalised assumptions and making generalised claims.
This is a very common error, with people talking about what 'the Greeks' believed. In fact we know only of the beliefs of a small number of intellectuals, most of whom were considered weirdoes and occasionally murdered in their own societies. As we see by Socrates' fate many of the beliefs considered quintessentially 'Greek' were in fact repulsive to most Greeks at the time. What those Greeks thought is either not recorded or ignored because it does not come in gigantic dialogues making a wide number of abstract pronouncements. We can infer the beliefs of elites and (to a far less extent) of the elite, but mainly by second-hand and possibly distorted interpretations. The same is true not only of people but of institutions. 'The Roman Republic' had no consistent legal framework. The balance of power, the enforced laws, the actual people, etc. varied wildly over time and most of the notions we have of its operations come either from indirect references in the works of classical authors or imaginary idealizations from people such as Cicero.

Popular histories are riddled with myths: stories that are unsupported by evidence, grossly exaggerated or entirely untrue. Most historians are aware of these myths and disregard them as either apocryphal or untrue. Non-historians, however, are often interested in the value of a story rather than its historical accuracy. Over time, many myths and stories have become accepted as historical fact, often because they sound appealing or fit a particular narrative. Many myths have been repeated in print, which lends them undeserved credibility.
How often are ridiculous stories by Plutarch quoted as if they were gospel truth. He makes a claim about Cato leaving Scipio's army in Sicily to complain about his extravagence are virtually impossible because we know Cato was recorded to be in Africa with Scipio. He is simply projecting their later antagonism anachronistically to make a point about Cato's character, without regard to the facts of the case. Plutarch virtually admits this, and yet 90% of popular 'historians' will repeat this story as if it were true, apparently they can't be bothered to do a google search on their sources. If people want to tell fanciful fairytales they can do so, but they should not present them as history.

There are several other problems mentioned in the article, one of which is militarism. Roman society is often perceived as being especially warlike, but its overall per capita levels of violence seem to be no higher (and often lower) than neighboring states. Its great military clashes, the subject of so many Roman and modern authors, occured on the fringed of the empire. While the toll of war fell on many people, especially during the Punic War and so forth, many people would never see an army even during a major war. Given the small size of armies and their slow rate of transporation it is almost inevitable that this be the case, there simply were not enough soldiers to engage in the kind of pangeographic warfare that the 18th century brought on. Yet histories (again I will use the Roman example) will attribute very much to these wars and battles which may have had different (possibly cooperating) causes. The fact that they aren't recorded doesn't give license to treat them if they did, it would be as absurd as claiming WW2 was the cause of the Moon Landing because NASA's records had been lost.

Overall the biggest problem with popular history (aside from sheer indifference by writers and authors to its veracity) is that they refuse to deal with complex, unclear and mysterious things and admit to their existence. People seem to like reading and writing stories, but history is not a story - it has no purpose, no main characters, no real beginning and no end. There is no uniting theme to history, except human behavior, its consequences and causes. And, just as today, many of those causes are so obscure and complicated that an honest person should say I don't know.

Similar is this Salon article, which discusses narrative history. When historians peer into the motives of people they are inventing things. No one is a time traveling mind reader, and if they were history would be rather superfluous. Historical persons may have made statements and their actions may match them. We may judge that they were telling the truth. But the fact is that people act for complex motives impenetrable to outsiders, and often to themselves. Even when a person's claims and actions are consistent they can still be lying. It may be plausible to give motivating factors for the unrest of the Visigoths but to say X tribe did Y for Z purpose is almost inevitably impossible to prove and open to an infinite number of other explanations.

In short, I think the main reason there is so much false and bad history is the reason that most history (especially popular, narrative history) is written has only the most tangential connexion to actual facts about past events. Many people writing history aren't writing good history because they're not actually writing history.
 
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AlpinLuke

Ad Honoris
Oct 2011
25,946
Italy, Lago Maggiore
#2
In Semiotics the reader gives a different meaning to a text while reading it. A meaning different from what the author intended. Usually the difference is not relevant because the author has written in a clear way and the reader has got good capabilities to understand ... to summarize this there is a common language and the author and the reader use this language in a correctly coded way.

The same process happens when we observe objects from the past [archaeology] or we read chronicles from the past [history]. In this second context the attempt to "receive" correctly the message of the author can be more difficult. Who made that jar? When? With which purpose?

Let's think to a lucky case: a wine jar fom the Egyptian New Kingdom with a nice label in Hieratic or even Hieroglyphics saying "Year 5, wine of the house of Nefertiti". Fantastic! We can know some things with certainty:

the wine had produced in an estate which belonged to Queen Nefertiti in "Year 5", so it has to be the Year 5 of the reign of Akhenaten ... and so on ...

The message is clear.

But often the context is not that clear. When this happens archeologists and historians keep on researching, publishing preliminary works, further reports ...

And then there is the market [where we can see what you call "popular history"]. History has got a market, but to make business, editors ask to historians to write "light" works, indulging also in underlining possible "discoveries" and hypotheses which attract a wider audience [so a larger demand on the market]. That Christine El Mahdy was a valid Egyptologist is out of doubt, but her works were for the general public. A good example is her work about Tutankhamen. It's a good work, but really light and she indulges in hypotheses [and a bit of mystery ... about this, pay attention that mystery mean audience, general public adores mystery].

And the dynamics of the market can even suggest to a History Channel to introduce aliens in history ... also aliens make audience.
 
Jan 2010
4,374
Atlanta, Georgia USA
#4
Hmmm. When you study history, you have to start somewhere, and IMO it is important for students of history to learn not only a general view of what happened in the past, but to get a sense of enjoyment in studying it. So for the ordinary history student, a broad brush picture is both good enough and desirable.

It is also fun for us who have gone beyond the basics to uncover "what really happened".

I have a big problem with this paragraph:

"Overall the biggest problem with popular history (aside from sheer indifference by writers and authors to its veracity) is that they refuse to deal with complex, unclear and mysterious things and admit to their existence. People seem to like reading and writing stories, but history is not a story - it has no purpose, no main characters, no real beginning and no end. There is no uniting theme to history, except human behavior, its consequences and causes. And, just as today, many of those causes are so obscure and complicated that an honest person should say I don't know."

If history is not a story but simply a recital of the behavior of certain extraordinary human individuals and the causes and consequences of that behavior then why should we study it at all, particularly if those behaviors have no relevance to our world?
 
Nov 2018
105
Idaho
#5
Hmmm. When you study history, you have to start somewhere, and IMO it is important for students of history to learn not only a general view of what happened in the past, but to get a sense of enjoyment in studying it. So for the ordinary history student, a broad brush picture is both good enough and desirable.
Oh, don't get me wrong - I have no problem with introductory books and primers. I have a huge number of them. What I don't like is that many of these books are identical to each other and they often reproduce the same known errors, errors which have been known since 1910 and on, and do not incorporate new findings that should reframe even a general treatment of history.

If history is not a story but simply a recital of the behavior of certain extraordinary human individuals and the causes and consequences of that behavior then why should we study it at all, particularly if those behaviors have no relevance to our world?
I actually do not believe that most people learn anything from history because they impose a false motive factor on the people involved (the thoughts of past people can never be recovered, nor their precise circumstances and methods), so they will never learn any 'lesson' from history except the wrong one. As far as I an concerned the 'reason' to study history is because you find the past interesting, not because there is some real practical utility. I do not agree with the dole roll of academics who think their pet hobbies are super important and vital to civilization. I think most of these people and their works could be destroyed by a magical fireball and our GDP and crime rates would improve. History, like knitting, is a hobby. Some people might make a career out of it, but for most of us it's just a way to while away time and impress people who lack the background in it.
 
Feb 2017
132
Pacific Ocean
#6
As far as I an concerned the 'reason' to study history is because you find the past interesting, not because there is some real practical utility.
I suspect that this is why most people study history, or at least read a history book, which leads me to ask what is the problem with 'popular history' being wrong in an academic sense, if it still reaches the intended desire of inspiring the interest of people. Your problem with wrong information being spread by 'popular history' seems to come from an understanding that this is in some way detrimental to those that read these books. But if history and historical knowledge do not have any big importance to civilization and society, what is the big fuss about?

The problem I see with 'popular history' is that it often spreads misinformation that can be detrimental, because it perpetuates prejudices. Some of these get into the heads, for example, of politicians, elected by people who feel that their prejudices are backed up by what they like to believe is 'real history'. So, in a sense, 'popular history' that continues unchecked by academia can have great detrimental consequences to society, and especially to minorities. A recent example is the misinformation in regards to the military dictatorship in Brazil, which leads people to think that this was a period in which people were secure and the economy went well. A little more academic checking could make people understand that this was not the case, and could have avoided the election of a president that openly defends the past dictatorship.

But otherwise, I see no problems in believing some false accounts by Plutarch or Cicero, as long as nobody down the line gets hurt because of it.
 
Oct 2011
3,738
the middle ground
#7
So, in a sense, 'popular history' that continues unchecked by academia can have great detrimental consequences to society, ...
That's a good point. Myth (Joseph Campbell sense of the word) is important for social cohesion, providing a unifying, value-reinforcing narrative that makes people feel their contributions to and even lives within the community are worth it. Of course "moral heroes, immoral culprits and satisfying endings" abound - stories (good ones anyway) are designed to capture and hold the interest of the schoolkid in all of us. As historian Richard Bulliet once remarked to an on-line class historical novels will outsell history proper any day of the week. That is unlikely to ever change. There is perhaps nothing more 'subversive' of myth than history, the possibility that available evidence might not exactly support what everyone has grown accustomed to believing. But many still wouldn't let facts get in the way of a good story, and when opposing myths collide in social or political conflict people get hurt, as you point out.

I pessimistically observe that in times of crisis and conflict people seem less likely to want to hear what academic historians (or other potential voices of reason) have to say at all...
 

Tulius

Ad Honorem
May 2016
5,401
Portugal
#8
Here is an interesting article I found discussing the problems of history, and especially popular history.

This is something I have noticed for decades - whenever I read a history book that was written for mass consumption or to prove some or other political/religious aim it was usually littered with errors, inventions, fables, etc. Much of 'popular history' is actually anti-history, in that it mainly serves to give impressions that are wrong and these false impressions are exactly the ones that stick with people. Why? For the same reason they're in popular history to begin with - people find them relatable, entertaining, understandable. History, as a complex slew of infinite and often completely unrecoverable events simply does not satisfy people. I would say that most popular history is bad history, and that people would know more about history if they had never read them, simply by virtue of not being utterly misinformed on almost every point. I trust that, aside from a few personal names and geographical expressions, an illiterate cowherd in rural Afghanistan 450 B.C. would know as much about medieval society as people who watch The History Channel's depictions of it.
The article you quote is interesting, and lists some problems more or less common in history, albeit doesn’t really bring nothing new.

In “popular” history there is a bit of all, from “good” popular history to “bad” popular history, and we know where History Channel is, but that doesn’t invalidate the need to exist books (or other media) that summarise history, for the non-initiated, for children and teens, for beginners. We all must begin somewhere.

This is a very common error, with people talking about what 'the Greeks' believed. In fact we know only of the beliefs of a small number of intellectuals, most of whom were considered weirdoes and occasionally murdered in their own societies. As we see by Socrates' fate many of the beliefs considered quintessentially 'Greek' were in fact repulsive to most Greeks at the time. What those Greeks thought is either not recorded or ignored because it does not come in gigantic dialogues making a wide number of abstract pronouncements. We can infer the beliefs of elites and (to a far less extent) of the elite, but mainly by second-hand and possibly distorted interpretations. The same is true not only of people but of institutions. 'The Roman Republic' had no consistent legal framework. The balance of power, the enforced laws, the actual people, etc. varied wildly over time and most of the notions we have of its operations come either from indirect references in the works of classical authors or imaginary idealizations from people such as Cicero.
Here I don’t agree with you. When we say what “the Greeks” thought, we fall naturally in a generalization. We fall in that generalisation with the samples that we have, both by Socrates thinking and by the thinking of his own detractors. And about the Greeks as about many others we have enough samples to allow us to make generalizations and summaries. As in all there are generalizations that range from good to bad. Anyway, generalizations, summaries, condensations are needed in history and are needed in the teaching of history. Generalisation give us an idea, don’t make us experts on the theme.

When we have 3 hours/week with the students and for the all year we have to give centuries of the history of the men, we need to manage the available time and select a few themes.

How often are ridiculous stories by Plutarch quoted as if they were gospel truth. He makes a claim about Cato leaving Scipio's army in Sicily to complain about his extravagence are virtually impossible because we know Cato was recorded to be in Africa with Scipio. He is simply projecting their later antagonism anachronistically to make a point about Cato's character, without regard to the facts of the case. Plutarch virtually admits this, and yet 90% of popular 'historians' will repeat this story as if it were true, apparently they can't be bothered to do a google search on their sources. If people want to tell fanciful fairytales they can do so, but they should not present them as history.
Plutarch works are sources, and as any other sources they need to be analysed and criticized. That is why we need to teach history methods much more than we need to tell stories to the history students, even if methodology is not as appealing to them.

Furthermore history has a curious “thing”. We can see “history” books written by anyone, experts or not, so it is natural that among the popular “historians” much garbage will appear. We don’t see that much in other disciplines or sciences.
 
Nov 2018
105
Idaho
#9
Furthermore history has a curious “thing”. We can see “history” books written by anyone, experts or not, so it is natural that among the popular “historians” much garbage will appear. We don’t see that much in other disciplines or sciences.
I would say the same is true of anything that touches politics or ideological underpinnings; whenever someone thinks he can assuage his own doubts by recourse to fictional and supernatural treatments of the human sciences they rarely refrain from doing so. The amount of utter nonsense in economics or musical theory is astounding, nearly infinite and drowning out almost everything else.
 

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