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Alan Russell

Teacher,

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Joss Whedon said, “Half of writing history is hiding the truth.” So, who gets to decide? Whom can one trust about the past?

When my brothers and I can't agree on the details of an incident from childhood, how can anyone believe anything from history? How does one know what and whom to believe--beyond indisputable facts (if they actually exist)? For example, Woodrow Wilson, a leader of the Progressive movement, was President of the United States from 1913-1921. But was he a racist who hindered progress and promoted segregation?

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  • Jan 11 2013: The historians get to decide.

    Whom to trust? For each historian, this is not a yes/no question, but a matter of degree.

    One way that I decide how much to trust any particular story is to use my own imagination and put myself into the situation, then decide how plausible it is, based on my experience and my general knowledge. Stories that seem too dramatic might have been enhanced a bit, but not always.

    By the way, hiding the truth is not always bad. Sometimes it is just a matter of fitting the truth into a certain number of pages or a certain number of months of writing. Often trying to relate the whole truth is impossible. The TV documentary, "The War" was a total of 15 hours of video, and it related the tales of only four American towns. It "hid" the truth of thousands of towns, but it was a good piece of history. Every historian must pick and choose how much of the truth to relate.
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    Jan 11 2013: Documentation is the remedy for the limited reliability of the human memory. Your question is, "Who does the documenting?" The obvious answer is anyone who wants to. Publish a book about a past event and you become a historian. You can say whatever you like in your book. Another historian may publish a book which conflicts with yours but that's OK. People will go with the version they prefer. Henry Ford said history is bunk. Napolean said history was a fable agreed upon. Ironically, Abe Lincoln said history was something we cannot escape. Voltaire said history was just a pack of tricks we play upon the dead. My favorite quote is from Samuel Butler who said, "God cannot alter the past, but historians can." We must continue to document the present, after all it will soon be the past and with no documentation how would we ever know that history repeats itself?
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    Jan 18 2013: Hi Alan,

    History is truly a fascinating subject.

    I would like to contribute to your question with a quote from Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States":

    "One can lie outright about the past. Or one can omit facts which might lead to unacceptable conclusions. Morison (who wrote about Columbus and the conquest of the Americas) does neither. He refuses to lie...

    ... But he does something else. He mentions the truth quickly and goes onto other things more important to him. Outright lying or quite omission takes the risk of discovery...

    ... to state the facts, however, and then bury them in a mass of other information is to say to the reader with a certain infectious calm: yes, mass murder took place, but it's not that important..."

    ====

    Now, human perception is also flawed. Anybody who has seen optical illusions can attest to the fallibility of the brain. How easy it is for two simultaneous observers to "see" different things!

    Yet, even with multiple accounts, it is up to us to remain critical of everything we read, and to ponder the context in which certain passages were recorded, by whom and the circumstances that might have influenced a particular way of recording them.

    It will always be incomplete information, then history must always be studied as a work in progress, and never as a series of fully "established" facts

    cheers
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    Jan 12 2013: When I look to history, I immediately look for documentary evidence, and let the facts fall where they may.

    In days of old, history books were written by those who were wealthy enough to be able to afford to commission (or write) them. These, of necessity, supported a specific worldview.

    Then, as more became literate, history was written by the winners of a battle. (example: All American history books say that the North won the Civil War. But if you look at our culture, you have to ask yourself - did it really? In the part of the world where I now live, the war isn't over yet. It's just not a military conflict.)

    More recently, some history is being written from a "bottom-up" perspective. It was a trend in the 1980s, but it appears to have died out.

    I am a personal historian. (I write memoirs). I know that no one memoir reflects the whole of the world that a client lives in or a historical event that he/she lived through; but the total of memoirs written make quite a statement.
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    Jan 11 2013: Well, of course you can look at the credentials of the person saying it. I might believe someone with a Ph.D. more than a high school graduate.

    Also, you can look at whether more than one person says it. If more people say it, it seems more likely.

    Also, you can look at whether it hangs together logically. For instance, Wilson might have been a racist, because lots of people were in those years. On the other hand, as president he might have been intelligent enough to transcend it.
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    Jan 11 2013: It is best to consider a variety of versions, taking note of the bias and credibility of the sources. It is important not to mistake arrogance, "big words," posturing, or charisma for expertise.
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    Jan 11 2013: when i can't see the atoms myself, how can i believe chemistry or nuclear physics? the answer is of course data, evidence, expertise and public discussion.

    the problem is not the subject itself. but rather the attitude of people. when it comes to physics, they accept the opinion of experts that spent years on learning it. but for some strange reason, sociology, economics and history are emotional subjects, and people believe what they want to believe, regardless of facts. so the public opinion and common "wisdom" (including school curriculum) about history is a joke. many people are not at all interested in reality.
  • Jan 11 2013: "When my brothers and I can't agree on the details of an incident from childhood, how can anyone believe anything from history?"

    Take out the family photoalbum... Historians aren't just elderly Englishmen sitting next to a fireplace, smoking a pipe and making stuff up, they cross-reference sources and take archealogical and other scientific evidence into account.
  • Jan 11 2013: History as recorded is usually subjective; it is based on a mix of facts, lies and perception.