Friday, August 26, 2005

Introduction to Historical Method: Certainty in History

[Nota Bene: What follows is the fifth and final part of a series entitled Introduction to Historical Method. The Series Index is located here.]

Certainty in History

The field of history seems to be undergoing a serious challenge to its validity, primarily from those who wonder whether knowledge is real or relative, objective or subjective. In In Pursuit of History, John Tosh frames the questions well. "How secure is our knowledge of the past? What authority should be attached to attempts of historical explanation? Can historians be objective?" In his attempt to elaborate, Tosh puts forth Geoffrey Rudolph Elton (author of his own book on Historical Method, The Practice of History) and Theodore Zeldin as representatives of two positions on the matter.

According to Tosh, Elton believed that humility in the face of evidence and training in technical research have enlarged the stock of historical knowledge. History is a cumulative, if sometimes contentious, discipline. Conversely, Tosh writes that Zeldin believes that all a historian can offer is a personal vision of the past and that everyone has a right to their own perspective. Tosh then explains that most academic historians agree with Elton, but every viewpoint between the two extremes has adherents. Finally, says Tosh, despite their seemingly confident bluster, many historians are confused about what they're doing. Maybe what follows will help.

What is the nature of historical belief?

There are a few characteristics that contribute to a theory of true historical belief.

Knowledge - There are many types of knowledge. First, there is general human knowledge, which is a combination of sense perception and mental processes, such as thought and analysis.

1) Knowledge Restricted - In its restricted sense, knowledge is only what one experiences directly or what one reasons, this does not include what one believes (and "belief" is not to be confused with religious Faith).

2) Knowledge Comprehensive - In this sense, knowledge includes all facts and truths apprehended by the human mind from experience, reasoning or belief (as previously defined). For an example of this last, we know that George Washington existed because we read it or were told so by many people who we trust. We didn't see him ourselves, but we know he existed because those who we deem "believable" told us he did.

3) Historical Knowledge based on Belief - As exhibited in the example of George Washington, this is a mental assent to a truth or fact on the word or authority of another. There are some very important factors to this. First, there must be two parties to process the information: the witness to the event and the believer (one communicates to the other). Second, the actual communication of knowledge--the testimony--must occur. Third, the testifier to the event must have authority. Authority in this sense means a complex of reasons or motives that makes the witness worthy of belief and induces others to accept his testimony as true. This all assumes that the witness is credible and that the fact that a testimony is being rendered has been established. So how can we be sure we can "believe"?
  • Credibility of the Witnessis guaranteed by three elements. First, the actual possession by the witness of the knowledge to be communicated (Knowledge). Second, the intention and desire of the witness to communicate the knowledge as he possesses it (Veracity). Third, the witnesses' accuracy in communicating the knowledge (Accuracy).
  • The Fact of Testimony means the determination whether a witness testified to a specific fact based on specific knowledge or interpolation. A couple examples: Caesar knew about the warriors of Gaul as he had first hand knowledge, but does this mean he knew the various aspects of the whole tribe? Another would be: Joe believes God spoke to him. Did God speak to him? See the difference?
  • Belief is a necessity of life. An enormous proportion of knowledge is gained from belief, not first hand experience or reasoning. Even the most educated person must take thousands of things on the authority of others. Science is the servant of authority and the belief in that authority. Scientists regularly accept the findings of colleagues. They don't attempt to reinvent the wheel on their way to designing a new car. Mankind cannot constantlyre-prove things or nothing would get done! As St. Augustine said, "It can be shown that human society would fall apart if they took nothing for granted except what they experienced first hand."
How do we Believe?There is belief on the word of another, though this has become increasingly difficult in the current age of irony and cynicism. There is belief based on evidence produced, such as in a legal case or in footnotes. Belief occurs if trustworthiness is established. A critical attitude can establish trust and can acknowledge a hisortian as a worthy guide while at the same time reserving the right to question facts or assertions. Here, credentials are important in establishing trustworthiness, though some would argue just the opposite! Belief is doctrinal when assent is given to a truth or doctrine, such as in religion or even government or politics. Belief is historical when assent is given to a fact. The difference can be confusing to some. Belief can be human or divine whether the witness is human or God.

Until the Nineteenth Century, belief based on a divine witness, or Revelation, was paramount. The two are psychologically alike, but Supernatural belief (Faith) and Human Faith are different. Faith is supernatural, often called divine Grace. Human faith is a different sort. Martin D'Arcy, in his The Nature of Belief said we "start life on the shoulders of the past." William Montague (The Ways of Knowing; or the Methods of Philosophy) believed that one had to trust others in matters that one was unable to investigate and assume that the testimony of others was the same as one's own if there is no suspicion. Franklin Giddings (The Scientific Study of Human Society) stated that even if something was "scientific," it still must be proved true. Hereford B. George (Historical Evidence) said there is no such thing as historical knowledge in the strictist definition because it is based on the word of others. Finally, the words of St. Anselm may help to resolve the problem. "I believe in order that I may understand." In essence, in the study and practice of history, Evidence and Authority are identical.

What is the nature of historical certainty?

The purpose of methodology is to arrive at a way to determine or establish historical certainty, which is the firm assent of the mind to a historical datum without reasonable fear of it being false. There are three types of historical certainty.

1) Moral - Moral certainty is made up of the known uniformity or regularity of some moral law along with a converging series of probabilities and a certainty excluding all reasonable doubt. Examples would be: 1) the unconditional love a parent has for his child, 2) people are eager to know the truth, 3) people usually don't lie when no advantage is to be gained.

2) Physical - Physical certainty includes the known uniform operation of a physical law and that law's role in critical assessment of evidence. An example would be the time consumed on a journey.

3) Metaphysical - This means absolute principles with no exceptions. The principle of contradiction states that a thing can't exist and not exist at the same time. The principle of sufficient reason states that nothing exists without sufficient reason. Then there is causation where it is stated that something causes something else to guess. As can be seen, Metaphysical Certainty lays solididly in the domain of Philosophy.

For the purpose of History, Moral Certainty is enough--"Beyond all reasonable doubt." It probably happened and it probably happened this way. Yet, what about the role of "scientific" Probability in History? Can a historical entity be mathematically established? Take a theoritical historical "fact." Could its "truth" be established by some sort of mathematical function, such as dividing all of those who support a given fact by all those who don't by the total number of opinions to give a percentage of certainty? Obviously, this is rife with problems. There are degrees of moral certainty and of the veracity of witnesses. The flaw in such a mathematical construct is that all opinions or testimonies are given equal weight. Factors of probability have to be weighed, not counted. Outweigh does not mean the same thing as outnumber. In History, it is truly Quality that trumps Quantity (though they aren't mutually exclusive!).

What is the possibility of historical certainty

This is a major question for historians. Can we really be morally certain about any of the supposed facts of history? This question is too simple. There are really three questions that need to be asked, and all must be answered affirmatively to answer the first. First, is the human mind capable of knowing historical truth? Is such truth even knowable? Is such truth ever presented on grounds adequate to guarantee it's certainty?

The Mind's capacity for truth is a given. It is proven in any sound philosophical epistemology. To deny that the mind knows truth is to commit intellectual suicide. All attempts to erect some form of skepticism as a system of knowledge have failed. The mind is able to know scientific truth and it follows that it must be capable of knowing historical truth.

Idealists and Skeptics are the biggest critics of history as an objective entity. The Idealists, such as Immanuel Kant, Georg Hegel and Bennedetto Croce, undermine the foundations of extra-mental reality and limit the human being. Allen Johnson, in his The Historian and Historical Evidence, said the "quest for truth is hopeless. It's limited by human intelligence." This is a Kantian view which takes the outside world to be a hypothetical structure.

Gilbert Garraghan, in his "Crocean View of History" from The Modern Schoolman, attacked Croce for applying philosophical idealism to history. History as record is relative because it comes from human beings. Just because we don't know all of the facts absolutely doesn't mean we don't know anything. History as record is actually part relative and part absolute. It is fixed in time and space (absolute) and relative. Skeptics too often exaggerate the difficulty of reaching truth. Modern critical investigation has actually caused many to question the validity of history as a whole, as seen by Henry Ford's famous " History is bunk" statement. The French methodologists Langlois and Seignobos stated that "general facts can be established and proved easier; contemporary history has more particular facts." This is true, but can be taken farther.

Experience and Testimonyare the grounds for historical certainty. To deny one's own experience would be to deny one's own senses, but it can be qualified: sometimes perception isn't reality, after all. Testimony must meet many requirements, such as consistency, corroboration, freedom from bias and veracity. Human testimony--oral or written, direct or indirect--under given conditions is a dependable source of certain knowledge. This is common sense! Edward A. Freeman, in his The Methods of History, said that historians can never attain certainty equal to science, but evidence we get every day in our lives is the same or similar to that which we use to write history.

In conclusion, there is such a thing as historical certainty. To quote John C. Almack, "The historian who selects all the sources, who subjects them to criticism after the approved tenets, who checks the testimony of one witness against the testimony of others, who records all the facts of his subject faithfully, who reports his facts accurately, and who makes reasonable generalization on the basis of his facts..." achieves historical certainty. Finally, as Richard J. Evans said in his In Defense of History, "History is neither an exemplar of realism, nor a victim to relativism. It occupies a middle ground in which scholarly procedures are upheld in order to keep the avenues of enquiry as close to the 'real' and as far removed from the 'relative' as possible."

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Introduction to Historical Method: Practicing The Historical Method

[Nota Bene: What follows is Part 4 of a five-part series entitled Introduction to Historical Method. The Series Index is located here.]

Practicing The Historical Method


As has been implied, history as a discipline often seems to be splintering and a knowledge of sound methodology is needed now more than ever to keep the working historian centered. Initially, the greatest challenges came from those who raised up the social sciences (ie: sociology, anthropology, psychology) as being the ultimate techniques for studying man and his past, present and future. Post-modernism, with its rejection of the ability of anyone to be objective, posed an even greater challenge. What follows is an attempt to lay the groundwork for using a solid methodology when researching, analyzing and writing history.

Meaning of Historical Method

First, a definition of Historical Method should be given. It is a systematic body of principles and rules designed to aid effectively in gathering the source materials of history, appraisng them critically, and presenting a synthesis (generally in written form) of the results achieved. More simply put, it is a system of right procedure for the attainment of historical truth. There are three major operations with method:

1) Heuristic - The search for material on which to work to acquire sources of information.

2) Criticism - The appraisement of the material or sources from the viewpoint of evidential value. This step is so important to the process of historical method that it is sometimes called "Historical Criticism."

3) Synthesis and Exposition - A formal statement of the findings of heuristic and criticism. It includes assembling a body of historical data and the presentation (usually in writing) in terms of objective truth and significance.

Uses of Historical Method

The phrase "tyranny of the printed page" is accurate. Whatever has arrived at the dignity of print has a tendency to be believed. As one historian put it, "[a] person without proper criteria for evaluating the information that reaches him from the outside risks a thousand deceptions and errors."

The written word must not be believed without critical analysis or real facts and falsifications will have equal weight in the eyes of the researcher. Proper training of a historian gives him a skill in assembling material, critically assessing it and setting out the results with effect. The self-taught historian is sometimes disparaged within the ranks of academia despite the inumerable valuable contributions made by these "amateurs."

Whether "classically trained" or self-taught, a practitioner of history must guard against falling into mistakes. Even the simplest document can offer many content and interpretation problems that those unaware or untrained may not recognize. In this, there is a danger that such problems, if left unrecognized, will remain unsolved or ignored altogether. It is easy to exaggerate the necessity of technical training, after all, critical method in history is often really just sound judgement and common sense. Yet, by themselves, sound judgement and common sense do have limitations even though they are the historian's most indispensible aid. In practical research they can take one a long way-- but not the whole way.

Judgement alone doesn't qualify a historian to decipher, to date, to localize, or to interpret simple ancient, medieval, or even modern documents. Technology has eased the burden of such concerns for the "layperson" somewhat, but it cannot yet be totally relied upon for accuracy and translation. It must be remembered that all science can be approached from a historical point of view.

History as Science

Is history a science? The disciplines concerned with man in his social relations are known as social sciences and History is very clearly considered to be part of the social sciences. The difference of opinion is probably more apparent than real. The discussion practically revolves around the meaning one chooses to attach to the term science. In practically all instances where the claim of history to be a science is denied, the denial is based on the assumption that the term science means an exact science. The crux of this discussion begins with a definition of science.

Most would agree that science is a systematized body of general truths concerning a definite subject matter and established by an efficient, effective method. This definition is sufficient, thought there really is no hard and fast, universally accepted definition of the term. Following is a breakdown of the four elements essential to the concept of science as has been defined:

  • A body of systematized knowledge - Data or information that is ordered, organized and classified. Not just a heap of isolated facts or truths, but a complex of them knit together according to some principle of rational, logical order, such as time, space, topic or causation.
  • An effective method - Science relies upon sound method more than anything so that conclusions derived from its practice can be deemed legitimate. The method must be correct and effective. History as record employs a recognized correct and effective technique, or method, from which the writer of history, at least scholarly history, cannot afford to depart. The use of a recognized method is a prime factor qualifying history to rank as a science.
  • A definite subject matter - Material can't be vague or limitless. A science must work within some sharply defined field of human knowledge.
  • Formulation of general truths - History deals primarily with particular happenings, with the unique, but a broader conception makes it pass at will beyond the unique to general and universal. There are two kinds of general truths: those restricted to time and place and those not. It is from broad, comprehensive truths that history derives its practical utility. History as record of human past has been understood to include the reporting of particular facts and interpretation and generalization based upon the facts.
It can be concluded that History is a science, though not an exact science, because History includes the above four elements. Thus, we can designate it as science, but only in a broad, qualified sense, as has been described.

What are the differences between history and the "exact" sciences?

1) The central truths of History are only morally uniform, not rigidly uniform as they are considered to be in the exact sciences.

2) The field of History has no universally accepted technical terminology, except for a few terms used in methodology. It has stock words, but none are rigidly fixed in meaning by usage or convention. Absence of technical terms is a weakness of history as science and results in vagueness and ambiguity in historical writing. The overuse of jargon only complicates matters.

3) History is not a science of direct observation (except perhaps oral history), which sets it apart from the exact sciences and their endless possibilities of immediate test and verification. The method of indirect observation, through the use of sources, is the only avenue open to the historian except in the few cases where he can draw on personal knowledge of facts.

4) History is a human story and has to deal with man, the ultimate self-determining agent. Free will, the incalcuble element, is a factor of which a historian must be constantly mindful. Additionally, and very basic to the problem, is the fact that there is no single definition to describe human! The exact sciences have no such incalcuble element.

5) Prediction in History is less reliable than in the exact sciences. From intimate understanding of an individual or group, one may forecast with great probability, and sometimes with moral certainty. Yet, it is impossible to predict with the same certainty what man, with free will, will do in the future as in the exact sciences and their subjects.

History enables man to predict events, though in a limited manner, and it is a science, though not an exact one. One thing that is for certain, History is not literature. If history is science, it cannot primarily be literature and, as such, fine art. Literary satisfaction is a nice byproduct of historical record making, but it is not a requirement (despite the wishes of some of us!) nor is it essential to the craft. Literary quality, however desirable in itself, belongs to the accidentals, not to the essentials of history.

Despite the preceding arguments, the question as to whether History is a science is academic. The resolution of the argument won't help the historian do his job more effectively. Such traits as honesty, impartiality, thoroughness, accuracy and documentation make a work scholarly, which is more consequential than it being characterized as scientific or otherwise.

Characteristics of a Historian

A competent historian should strive to have the following characteristics:

  • A zeal for truth, which postulates sincerity and frankness in stating the facts, however much feelings may be hurt. Cicero said, "It is the first law of history that it dare say nothing that is false nor fear to utter anything that is true, in order that there may be no suspicion either of partiality or hostility in the writer." Additionally, British historian Lord Acton said, "Impartial history can have no friends."
  • Honesty requires that important facts and circumstances, good or bad, be recorded. To omit can create the wrong impression and is virtually the same as falsification. The suppression of the truth is the suggestion of a falsehood. Additionally, be aware that sources often passively or actively did not hold themselves to this standard. When studying a source, remember that the failure to mention facts does not imply their non-existence. Never forget that the normal is taken for granted, both now and in the past. The argument from silence is invalid as a linchpin of historical "proof."
  • Industry is also important as research takes a lot of time. A historian must learn to be economical in his work and must be prepared to research to near exhaustion. No research is wasted; a negative result is often as valuable, if less satisfying, as a positive. It must also be remembered that it is the substance of the fact that matters, not the accidentals. All circumstances attending an event in history do not have to be known before the record can be made "as it happened." It is helpful to think of law and the concept of reasonable doubt as a guide. If historians attempted to acquire all of the facts they would find themselves in indefinite or even infinite study and the field would not advance.
  • Concentration is closely tied to industry. It is the mental alertness that makes a historian ready to recognize and account for every piece of causal information that can help master a subject. Aspects important to particular research automatically reveal themselves as such, at least if one is wide awake to the task. A finely honed ability to simply concentrate helps the researcher separate the wheat from the chaff.
  • A critical sense and sound judgement are a historian's primary assets. Candor is always desirable, but it must not be restrained. If research reveals something about a subject that is negative and non-essential, omit it. Don't engage in superfluous, tell-all practices for their own sake. However, also beware of a lack of criticism, which is an injudicious attitude of mind.
  • Both the mania for the extraordinary or narrow and exaggerated conservatism that looks upon criticism as the natural enemy of cherished traditions are both pitfalls. Hypercriticism is the abuse of a good thing. Overrating internal evidence, absorption with trifles, and an itch for novelties and an urge to upset established beliefs and traditions on no grounds of adequate evidence renders any valid criticism suspect. They are the historical version of crying wolf. In the end, the nature and true spirit of critical research is a benefit to the field. For example, the impression may be that modern critical investigation has cast doubt on many ancient and medieval sources of history and that they should be regarded skeptically. The fact is that a considerable proportion of the old historians have stood successfully against rigid scrutiny. This shows that criticism at its best is constructive and is a preservative of traditional viewpoints.
  • Objectivity is really just the other side of the coin from a zeal for truth. It is a detached and neutral attitude in the historian that enables him to deal with material in light of the evidence alone. Von Ranke's exhortation to record a thing "as it really happened" is especially germane. However, there are some misconceptions about objectivity. It doesn't require the historian to be free from prejudice or to approach the task free of principles, theories or philosophies of life. It doesn't mean a historian must divorce himself from sympathy for his subject or refrain from forming judgements or drawing conclusions. Instead, the historian simply needs to be aware of his own biases and predispostions. Impartiality, rightly understood, on the part of the historian is a practical ideal. Events can be recorded "as they happened" as far as the evidence permits and historical truth can be achieved-- even though numberless details remain unkown. The question of whether history can be objective is kept alive by loose and unwarranted use of the term. The debate is speculative and has little practical bearing on the historian's actual task. The temptation to succumb to the ideal of objectivity must be fought with a pragmatic understanding of the term.
Hallmarks of Critical History

Critical history is also referred to scholarly or scientific history. Any of the three terms is acceptable. There are five aspects that establish a historical piece as meeting the standard of a scholarly work.

1) Method - The application of a correct technique to find and criticize data and the arrangement and presentation of the data according to an effective plan. As Lord Acton said, "Method makes the historian."

2) Candor- Critical history makes no attempt to pass for more than it is. It acknowledges all appropriations made by the author and doesn't conceal or gloss over matters which can't be so treated without a sacrifice of the truth. Dishonesty or failure to give due credit is plagiarism, which is the act by which one appropriates anothers work and passes it off as one's own.

3) Accuracy or Truth- Nothing diminishes interest in history more than the suspicion that facts are missing. A meticulous correctness of statement in all matters of fact is the ideal. Before going to press, a manuscript should be scrupulously checked for errors. History is innacurate when too many mistakes suggest the author is careless, earning him the ultimate negative tag in the field. Sloppy. However, a historian can't try to be perfect or he would never publish a thing!

4) Thoroughness - Use of all important sources bearing on a subject and treatment of all significant phases of the subject. There are always working standards at hand that enable one to judge whether a work reaches or falls below the demand of thoroughness.

5) Verifiability - A work of history must be fortified with indications of sources, which will enable the reader to check for accuracy and reliability.

As historians, we sometimes become enamored with pet projects or theories and forget those tools that have grounded historical scholarship in our modern era. A little reminder every now then--remembering "the basics"-- will help us refocus historical scholarship.

Up Next: Certainty In History

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Introduction to Historical Method: The History of Historical Method

[Nota Bene: What follows is Part 3 of a five-part series entitled Introduction to Historical Method. The Series Index is located here.]

The History of Historical Method

The Ancient Greeks made no distinction between the writing of history and rhetoric. History found no place in their concept of an organized system of science. For his part, Aristotle ranked poetry above history as he believed poetry was closer to philosophy, which he held primary. He did believe that source material was necessary for scholarly treatment of history and that it couldn't just be made up. Some Greeks held history in higher regard. Herodotus is the acknowledged "Father of History" and was the creator of the narrative recital in his telling of the wars between Greece and Persia. Thucydides is considered by many to have been the first scientific historian and his Peloponnesian War is considered the first work of Didactic history as its aim was to instruct rather than entertain. Xenophon is generally classified as the lesser of the three great Greek historians. He was a good writer but weak in criticism. He was more of a reporter than a historian, though his Anabasis is a riveting first person account. The last of the ancient Greeks to mention is Polybius. He was a pragmatist and seeker of historical causes. He had views as to the function of the historian and the scope of his art, which is the most noteworthy of the historians of the ancient world.

The three great Roman historians were Sallust, Livy and Tacitus. Sallust was a truth-seeker, but was under the spell of party tradition, fails to mention sources and was careless with his chronology. However, he was skillful in depicting character. Livy is noteworthy for his psychological delineation of character and gift of presentation, but he is deficient in documentary research, methodical testing, critical selection and his main interests is rhetorical. Tacitus has a lofty outlook and love of truth. He is pragmatic and severely critical. He is adept in character sketching and psychological analysis, but he's also influenced by party spirit and is distortingly pessimistic and resorts to rhetorical finery. A later contemporary of the Romans is the often overlooked Jewish historian Josephus, who gives account of events in which he personally participated. However, his statements often need verification and he wrote according to the historical canons of the day and on the side of the Roman Emperor. Most importantly, he gives one of the very few non-Christian testimonies that refer to a historical Jesus.

The Medieval period started with works in Christian antiquity. Eusebius was the author of a Chronicle and a history of the Church. His history of the Church is a good source with important original documents not extant elsewhere and its method of treatment, which was critical for its day. St. Jerome revised and supplemented Eusebius' Chronicle, which furnished the conventional chronological framework for historiography all thru the Middle Ages. When discussing the medievalist, it is important to note, as was the case with the Ancients for the most part, that none of their work rises to modern standards of criticism and discrimination in the use of historical sources wasn't typical. "History" in the Middle Ages meant everything told and written in books, but many do show more than a measure of caution in dealing with sources.

Gregory of Tours wrote the History of the Franks, which is the most important work on the 6th Century Franks. The Venerable Bede wrote the Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation and was modern in method and included a bibliography of his own writings in the aforementioned work. Otto of Freising wrote the Two Cities and he posited an objective and impartial aim for historians. Interestingly, he believed that history passed from east to west and as there was no more land left in Europe, the end of the world was nigh! Salvian wrote De gubernation Dei in which he painted a picture of moral and economic confusion that went with the barbarian invasions of the 5th Century. He believed that the disintegration of the Roman Empire was a triumph of barbarian virtue over Roman vice. Einhard's Life of Charlemagne was probably the first and best secular biography written in the Middle Ages in contrast to Asser's Life of King Alfred which was poorly organized, but is remarkable because it is the only existing primary source of its subject. Matthew Paris wrote a Chronicle that he also illustrated. He was a prolific chronicler and hagiographer. Froissart, yet another writer of a Chronicle, echoed the views of his contemporaries and really had no original thought, but his work is a mirror on his era. Philip de Commines wrote Memoirs and was interested in what events reveal about men more than the men themselves.

The Italian Renaissance, or the age of Humanism, saw both Christian and Secular (or even Pagan) historians advance the field of history. The latter group elevated the Graeco-Roman world as a model for literature and art as well as standards of private and public conduct. Both groups worked to restore the 10th Century copies of ancient texts and printed them with the advent of the printing press. The Renaissance saw the beginnings of formal historical method, an example of which was the Italian Lorenzo Valla's work of historical criticism attacking (rightly) the authenticity of the "Donation of Constantine."

The Sixteenth thru Early Eighteenth Centuries saw many general developments in historical method. The critical attitude was given impetus by the Protestant Reformation. The Magdeburg Centuries was an aggressively pro-Protestant work and was countered by Baronius, a Catholic scholar, whose Annales ecclesiastici was marked by vast research and sound criticism. The period also saw the emergence of the Bollandists, a group of Jesuits who began editing existing lives of the Saints by applying textual criticism and authentication. Their hagiographical series known as the Acta Sanctorum was a landmark of historical technique.

The Bollandists were also involved in the "bella diplomatica," a series of academic controversies between Jesuit and Benedictine scholars that resulted in permanent gains in critical history and paved the way for source analysis. The most important of these incidents involved the Jesuit Bollandist Papebroch and the Benedictine Mabillon. Papebroch challenged the genuinness of cetain charters of the Merovingian period and Mabillon came to the defense. He drew up a series of tests to distinguish genuine documents from false. This resulted in his De re diplomatica, which laid the foundation for the sciences of diplomatics (the exact reproduction of original documents) and paleography. Papebroch was the first to congratulate Mabillon on his success and the former's letter to his colleague is an expression of the correct attitude in an academic controversy.

History was becoming more distinct from literature. Mabillon's De re diplomatica is often called the first methodology. Gerhard Johann Voss' Ars historia was the first effective statement that "history is an independent subject of study." Henri Griffit also wrote a work that has been characterized as the "most significant book on method after Mabillon's" and the "most clear-cut statement of fundamentals of historical research." The shaping of methodology also owed much to the atheistic and anti-Christian writings of Charles de Montesquieu. His Considerations uncovered various factors that influenced Roman history and his Esprit des lois set forth geographical and social conditions which effected the various forms in which the state had assumed in different lands. Finally, the philosopher Leibniz formulated his law of historical continuity in which every historical phenomenon is the effect of antecedent phenomena and the cause of phenomena that follow.

The closing decades of the Eighteenth and all of the Nineteenth Century saw methodology make notable strides due to various causes. Johann Herder opened the way to a genetic or evolutionary concept of history and, along with Barthold Niebuhr, was a major influence at the University at Berlin. Barthold Niebuhr emphasized that historians had an obligation to appraise sources carefully and from the viewpoint of evidential value. In essence, he codified a method of source criticism. The rise of Nationalism after the Napoleonic Wars as nations became concsious of their own past. Voltaire had anticipated this history of civilization, or kulturgeschichte in his Le siecle de Lous XIV.

The Romantic Movement, a reaction to the rationalism of the Age of Reason, drew attention to the Christian viewpoint in history and held up the Middle Ages as the flowering of Christian spirit. One of the Romanticists, Chateaubriand is said to have unlocked the Middle Ages. The cultivation of legal history also advanced methodology as historians (like Savigny) researched the history of German and Roman law during the Middle Ages.

The literary study of classical scholarship, philology, also gained new attention and elevated the study of historical linguistics. Friedrich Wolf infamously tackled the "Homeric question" to prove his theory that the Homeric poems had multiple authors. He aggressively used "higher criticism" to prove his point and inspired rationalists who applied his method to the Bible. Wolf's theory is no longer favored, but his method of procedure, especially his use of internal criticism, has become convention. Finally, John Lingard, in his History of England, strove to use only original sources in his research and is a landmark in historiography.

The Modern Era was probably most affected by the "Father of Modern History," Leopold von Ranke. He was the inventor of the historical seminar in which his students performed first hand investigation of source material under the guidance of a professional. His exhortation to "go to the sources" instigated the "cult of the document" in the modern historical profession. Ranke's students disseminated throughout Europe, then America, and brought his teachings with them. Less celebrated is Lord John Acton. He was a Catholic who was prohibited from attending Cambridge because of his faith and went to learn in Munich instead. He became convinced of the importance of political liberty in the modern state. He eventually returned to England and ascended to the Chair of History at Cambridge. He planned one of the first great corporate works, the Cambridge Modern History. He had a profound influence on his contemporaries and the development of British historical studies.

The modern era also saw the emergence of collections, which overcame a major handicap of inaccessability to necessary sources that were often buried in public or private archives. The Monumenta Germania Historia (MGH) of Germany, Documents Inedits of France and the Rolls Series of Great Britain are all examples of these. But this was just the tip of the iceburg. By the Twentieth Century, photographic reproduction of source materials and microfilm of newspapers and other written works hastened the democratization of historical research, as did the wide availability of already translated texts. Technology has continued to improve the accessibility of source data with computers and the internet. Thus, in this current atmosphere of massive data availability from multiple sources, the need to promote sound method is important to maintain solid scholarship.

Up Next: Practicing The Historical Method

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Introduction to Historical Method: The Meanings of History

[Nota Bene: What follows is Part 2 of a five-part series entitled Introduction to Historical Method. The Series Index is located here.]

The Meanings of History


Many think that history is passive and unalterable. It has been called an "exciting and vivid costume drama" or "a tedious catalogue of dates." This attitude towards history is largely a result of people being taught that history is a Static process, that it never changes. This is the predominant way it is taught in our schools and is usually considered BORING. History as taught in college, especially on the graduate student level, is shown to be more of a Dynamic process. The essential plot and the people are the same, but new interpretations are investigated. This last is what is known as revisionism. Unfortunately, revisionism has gained a negative connotation because of the excessive zeal with which some historians have attempted to rewrite history. Some of these radical historians (left, right and middle) have too often thrown the baby out with the bath water when reassessing historical events. They are guilty of anachronism or "presentism"--applying the morals and mores of the present to the past--and have produced historical re-interpretations that seem excessively critical and dismissive of previously honored historical actors. This has alienated many non-historians who have in turn shut out all attempts at historical reinterpretation and resigned themselves to the boring, static history they learned in school. Historical revisionism is good, but it must be done correctly and carefully.

Static and Dynamic Concepts of History

As mentioned, the Static form is the prevalent form and is basically a fixed story of the past. Alternatively, the Dynamic concept of history is a story of the past that is in constant dialogue with the present. Contrary to any impression which may have been given, not all historians embrace the dynamic concept. They would prefer that past interpretations be kept as they are. Some are simply disconcerted with the idea of shifting from a Static to a Dynamic concept, though this is probably not so much the case any more. It would seem that these historians have lapsed into a comfortable belief that some history has already been adequately researched and nothing new has come up. Perhaps they have confused Past Actuality with its Record?

The primary benefit of a dynamic concept of history is that it continually invites historians to reassess the past. If the scholarship is good, it will be embraced, if not, it will be rejected. This concept of a "changing past" offers intellectual reward and inspiration to keep researching. This does not mean that responsible historians are attempting to change the past, rather, they are always striving for a better explanation.


Revisionism is a central tenet of historical scholarship. It is the unending search for fresh material, sources and interpretations of the past. The debates which develop out of revised interpretations of the past are essential to the field of history. As has been said, the term "Revisionist" has gained a negative connotation, but it is not some new phenomena; it's a constant process that has gone on for centuries, though especially the last few. Why should we revise history?

As the pace of change quickens, from such forces as science and technology and the rapid dissemination of information, there arises a pressure to revise accounts of the past. Human's identities are wrapped up in the past. As our self-perceptions in the ever-changing present change, our view of past actuality also changes. New questions are asked about the past, especially as new, previously ignored groups (minorities and women, for example) emerge. Also, new historians may revisit "old" records or these records may gain new importance and are reinterpreted. The philosophies of the Eighteenth Century, dominated by the Enlightenment, inspired a desire to use revision of history in a campaign to exult reason.

Voltaire and Gibbon

Voltaire broke with long established tendencies of studying history and Edward Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire offered a new interpretation for why the Roman empire fell. Gibbon asserted that Christianity turned the minds of the Roman leaders from problems of this life to the afterlife and they also suffered from "immoderate greatness." Both Gibbon and Voltaire wrote reverentially of past governments and countries. Their works are regarded as classics and were manifestos to advance liberty and reason. They weren't supporters of their contemporary governments. This idealogy inspired them to reassess past interpretations of history as they looked for ways to buttress their own arguments against the status quo. They were searching for historical precedents.

Malthus, Marx and new forms of History

The Reverend Thomas Malthus, "the gloomy economist," was concerned with population growth. He viewed contemporary history as a history of higher classes and believed that a history of the general population was needed. He also believed that statistical analysis was key and called on others to do research in his Essay on the Principle of Population. Heeding his call, historians studied 200 years of statistics related to the poor and the general population. This led to the development of the social sciences, especially demographics, as a reaction to history of the wealthy. After the study, Malthus concluded that lower classes couldn't control their lust and he proposed to keep population in check by keeping wages at subsistence level. Essentially, he felt that government should simply leave the poor alone rather than make life better for them. Before continuing, it is important to provide some context.

Malthus' study occurred during the Industrial Revolution when massive demographic change and political unrest developed as people moved from farms to factories in or near the city. Malthus' concern with population growth didn't properly factor in the Industrial Revolution so his perception of the overpopulation problem was skewed. His conclusion that the best way to control overpopulation was to basically let the poor fend for themselves, or die trying, was a bad idea, to say the least. Yet, his investigation opened up an area of inquiry, the study of the common man, which proved beneficial. A fine example of the silver lining on a very dark cloud.

Meanwhile, during the Industrial Revolution (which Malthus missed), militant groups of workers evolved out of social unrest as they vowed to fight for better wages and working conditions. How could this be accomplished? Karl Marx studied the roots of social unrest and thought that he had an answer in his Communist Manifesto of 1848. This was not a work of scholarship, but rather a call to arms. Marx believed that human history was the history of class struggle, which proved to be one of the most sweeping statements ever made in the history of History. Marx believed each epoch related to economic interests and challenged people to think about the causes of social unrest.

Slowly at first, historians began to embrace his concepts, some more wholeheartedly than others. The Marxist school was dominant through the 20th Century, though it took a serious fall with that of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Historians didn't necessarily embrace Marxism, though there were a quite a few who did, but used it as a new way of thought and a new focus for research. Marxism helped to reveal that "the people" could be studied and that history was more than the study of leaders of nations. It was a juxtaposition of old form with new methods. Today, many Marxists still cling to the more utopian ideas of the theory and continue to champion neo-Marxist philosophies. Time will tell if Marxism will regain its status as a major school of historical thought or if its valuable aspects have already been accepted and its time for the rest of it to wither away.

People's History

The rapid transformations of the 18th Century, along with the influences of Malthus and Marx, also created a new movement towards what became known as 'Peoples History.' In 1874, Reverend John Richard Green wrote A Short History of English Peoplein which he passed over the traditional historical highlights and the elite and instead focused on the average people. It was released at a time when populist and nationalist movements and "phobias" (such as anglophobia) were prevalent. It was a very popular work and was translated into many languages. Who were "the people" Green wrote about? He didn't include women or minorities. He also spoke of the "English people", thereby implying an acceptance of the nation as the primary social unit that is to be studied. As a result, Green's work accelerated revisionism as a younger generation embraced the core of his idea and took it further. They began to recognize that other social units, besides "the nation," were legitimate. This eventually led to studies in minority history and women's history.

W.E.B. Dubois was an African-American scholar who was impressed by Marx. He wrote of "Negro History" and founded the Journal of Negro History. His quote, "Historical invisibility is a virtually universal corrollary to powerlessness" provided he and others with inspiration to delve into the history of those who had been "forgotten." For his part, he rescued black history from obscurity and the biases of white historians. All of the books that he wrote went un-reviewed, denying him acknowlegement as a scholar by his peers, but he brought about the expansion of black history and opened the door for others. A new body of scholarship was created that increased the overall understanding of history and increased the racial pride of blacks and glorified their goals. Dubois' work showed that a good study could educate the majority and foster an attitude of equality and opportunity. Other minorities, such as Hispanics and Native Americans, became interested in studying history. Women also became increasingly engaged in historical research that dealt specifically with women's history. Many like to point to June Sochen's Herstory as the pivotal work in Women's History. The title evoked the necessity of a story told by a woman other than that told by male historians.

What of the future of People's History in all of its varieties? As can be inferred, it has been often used as a tool by various "movements" as a path to legitimization. The desire for group recognition is understandable and admirable, but it also lends itself to bias and a tendency to gloss over the bad and highlight the good of a particular overlooked group. At the same time, it does exactly the opposite with the perceived "oppressors" (usually, rich, elite, white men).

Initially, particularly in minority history, the elite of these groups, such as Malcolm X or George W. Carver, were highlighted. As the genre matured and developed, more studies of average people were done. The methods used in People's history are often the same as those used in sociology and there are many instances of cross-fertilization. This points to a danger of losing the actual craft of history as a viable discipline within the genre of People's history, but most historians still do rely on a narrative form of exposition. What is required for People's historians is to maintain or rediscover good methodology, ignore the temptation to propogandize and to properly tell history. Regardless, their work conjures up debate, which is always beneficial.

The Annales School and Cliometrics

In 1929, a new kind of historical scholarship, called the Annales School, arose. Its practitioners aimed to capture the totality of the human experience and relied heavily on social sciences to achieve this goal. They emphasized the enduring patterns of culture that changed little over time. Central to their approach was a rejection of event oriented history as such events were just "ripples on a lake." A concern with events was replaced with a search for societal patterns. The concept of mentalites was put forth, the idea that a particular way of life and values persisted over time, despite upheavals. Marc Bloch and Fernand Braudel were the key founders of the Annales school and it was Braudel who coined the term longue duree, the vast sweep of time during which little real change occurred. He did this in his The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, written in 1949, which emphasized the area around the Mediterranean basin rather than a particular nation. No doubt, he was influenced by his times (Nationalism, Communism, World War II) in attempting to write history in this manner. As a result, the Annales school, in its purest form, began to throw out any sense of history as story and became a conceptual melting pot of disciplines, including sociology, anthropology and geology.

Another method, Cliometrics, also came to the fore during this time. Cliometricians attempt to use quantification to reveal historical meaning and rely on statistics, computers and scientific models to achieve their goal. Their work was very valuable, especially in the particular area of Economic history, but there is a tendency for cliometricians to reject source material that can't be quantified. They term such material as "soft" or "impressionistic" and use them reluctantly or only to support their "hard" evidence. As a result, Cliometrics is a self-limiting field in that its practitioners can only study such topics as have suitable amounts of statistical data. Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman's Time on the Cross provides an example of Cliometrics being taken too far. The authors set out to disprove the accepted view of slavery and ended up seeming to attempt to make the institution of slavery look beneficial based on their statistical evidence. Their study opened the entire school of Cliometrics to attack. Included among its attackers was Jacques Barzun, whose now-classic Clio and the Doctors poked holes in the growing scientification of history and also was an eloquent plea for keeping history in the domain of narratives.

Psychology and History

Psychohistory attempts to apply the Freudian or other psychoanalytic methods to historical study. The inherent problem within the field is that there are roughtly 15 generally recognized methodologies of clinical analysis and the question of which-to-apply-when is a genuinely critical question. Nonetheless, psychohistory is a good tool for dealing with motive as it seeks to determine the real, often unstated, reason of the actions of historical entities. Erik Erikson's book Young Man Luther was probably the first example of this approach. Lewis Namier used a psychohistorical approach in his work on the British House of Commons and Fawn Brodie's psychobiography of Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History, also is a notable work in the field. Brodie's work showed that man's inner life affects all and that to illuminate it takes technique as well as empathy and nuance.

Psychohisotry is a bold discipline that believes in the science of clinical evidence. It also lends itself to narrative and has helped revive the historical biography. Social psychology (integration of the South in the 1950's) and abnormal psychology (Hitler) also add dimensions to the field. The primary problem of psychohistory is that its practitioners often must resort to post- mortem psychoanalysis of their subject, something that neither Freud nor those of other psychological schools had in mind when developing and expanding upon their theories of psychoanalysis.

Changing Roads to the Past

As has been seen, history is an organic, dynamic, and not anachronistic, process. Despite fads and trends, it is still usually expressed in a narrative form, though those approaches are also evolving. A definitive history is non-existant and scholars refrain from using the term anymore as it implies a static body of knowledge and lends support to those who criticize the validity of historical scholarship. Additionally, the teaching of Historiography, the study of the practice of history influenced by ideas of continuity, must continue. Related to the maintenance of an awareness of historiography is a mastery of sound methodology and a willingness to embrace new techniques with the ability to discriminate between valid theories and fads while being critical of the latter. As has been seen, many of the new theories of historical research have been valid, if not overestimated, in their comprehensive ability to explain history. There is no one magic method that stands above the others and the historians task is to consider these approaches, in addition to their own preferred method, as they strive to create the historical record.

Up Next: The History of Historical Method

Monday, August 22, 2005

Introduction to Historical Method: What is History?

[Nota Bene: What follows is Part 1 of a five-part series entitled Introduction to Historical Method. The Series Index is located here.]

Introduction: What is History?

History can be defined as the most complex, inclusive and many faceted of the social sciences. Quite a statement, but is it true? In fact, it is only a description; it assumes you know what social science is and, as such, is really not a proper definition at all. History is difficult to define because people, both present and past, have different preconceptions and viewpoints as to what exactly history is. Most definitions are at least partially true, but what does the term "History" mean? Generally, the following aspects of the term "History" are agreed upon:

1) Past Actuality - All things that have happened until this moment. Specifically, past human events that are irrevocably fixed in time and space. It is considered to be absolute and objective - it is what happened.

2) Record of Past Actuality - The human attempt to recapture the past, to fix it in words and to give it meaning. It is relative and subjective and is only a version of what happened from the viewpoint of the recorder. It used to be primarily considered a written record, but the 20th century saw a rediscovery of the value of oral history as well as technological advancement leading to visual mediums (other than art) such as movies and television as well as recordings. There are three types of record, Narrative, Didactic, and Genetic.

  • The oldest and most commonly understood is the Narrative, a true story that is told. It was the only way to tell history starting around 4000 BC until about 500 BC. It is simply a telling of history in a chronological order, the order of time if you will.
  • The next form, Didactic, evolved sometime around 500 BC (usually credited to Thucydides Peloppennesian War) and is essentially instructive history or history that teaches a lesson. The deocentric, or Christian, writers of the Middle Ages are the best example of this type. They treated Past Actuality as a precedent for action and hoped to bring guidance to those who read of the past, whether to glorify God, a social group or an individual. Didactic was the preeminent form until the Enlightenment when Leopold von Ranke, the father of modern history, published his first work and exorted his students to "go to the sources."
  • Shortly thereafter, the third type, Genetic, emerged and is the primary type practiced from the 1800's up to the present. The goal of Genetic history is to establish the "why" of historical events by studying the complexity of cause and effect which in turn reveal the growth, development and evolution (sometimes called the basic phenomena) of history. A better way to put it is that Genetic history tries to establish the "why" for complex historical events by investigating causal relations.

3) Making the Record of Past Actuality - The process or technique -the method- used to make a record of past actuality is also considered 'History.' Method makes history a science, though not an exact one. There are 4 steps to historical method:
  • An exhaustive search for sources of information.
  • The study of the information in those sources.
  • A critical evaluation of the information. An active process to comprehend motives and judge actions.
  • The final synthesizing of material and recasting it according to personal judgement.
The basic considerations of method are the type of sources used and their reliability. The sources are the data and evidence on which an historical case is to be built and there are
different kinds of these.

1. Primary Sources - Are those in which people write or speak of themselves or contemporaries.

2. Secondary Sources - Those writings of a later day about earlier events.

3. Tertiary Sources - A compilation of secondary sources, though they often include some primary sources.

A Note - Some historians take this out to even further levels, such as centenary (an admitted exagerration), but generally the aforementioned are enough.

Regardless of the type of source, it must be reliable. Therefore, the Reliability of Sources must be determined. Sources can be Fraudulent, Inaccurate, or Biased ("FIB") and must be tested for:

1. Consistency - Ensure the evidence is logical and not contradictory?

2. Corroboration - Check sources against one another.

3. Freedom from Bias

If any of the "FIB"s are revealed, the source must be evaluated with that in mind.


With these factors in mind, one can make another attempt to define history. Thus, History is the science which first investigates and then records, in their causal relation and developments, such past human activities as are definite in time and space, social in nature, and socially significant. To explain further, History is a science because it does have a definite method, as will be shown. It is further important to qualify which human events are considered historical. That the event be 'definite in time and space' is important because if such is the case, then the event can be philosophically proven to have occurred. That an event be social in nature is an affirmation of the humanity of history which is further qualified by the fact that it must be socially significant, which means it must contribute to the common knowledge of humanity.

As can be imagined, there are a wide array of definitions of history, most of which arise out of various schools of historical interpretation. Various schools of history arise out of particular academic training and the belief that one particular aspect of human nature or environment is paramount in interpreting history. Other 'schools' are not ignored, they just aren't as important. It helps to imagine a spoked wheel, like that of a Conastoga wagon, where each spoke represents a particular school of history and the hub of the wheel represents the primary school to which a particular practitioner of history adheres. A historian would be familiar with the spokes and would use them as support for his argument, but the central thesis would be derived from the hub.

There are many schools of history. Below are a few of the more common ones. To further help explain them, I will use the example of what each school might describe as the primary cause of the American Revolution.

1. Social - Investigates the development of human groups and communities and their interaction with larger society as they emerge. EX: They would focus on the type of colonist in America (independent, free-thinking) as the primary cause.

2. Cultural/Intellectual - Often considered different, but approach with same method, if from different direction. Both deal with the meaning of ideas and attitudes and their effect on social changes. Generally, Intellectual is considered a study of the elite--the idea makers, if you will--while Cultural deals more with the ideas and traditions of the common people. EX: Both might argue that the people listened to the great thinkers, such as Locke and Jefferson, who espoused philosophical ideas of liberty, etc.

3. Political - Focus on the operation and acts of governments, parties and institutions. EX: The British Parliament's idea of taxation without representation and the Intolerable Acts stoked the fires of Revolution.

4. Diplomatic - Focus on the relations between governments. EX: Strained relations between the Colonies and Great Britain led to the war.

5. Economic - Study developments in technology, production, consumption and division of wealth. EX: Money was the cause as the British attempted to interrupt commerce.

6. Psychohistory - Investigate emotional development of individuals and families using techiques derived from psychoanalysis. EX: King George III had poor relations with his father which affected his judgement.

7. Post-modern - There is no such thing as historical truth, thus, because knowledge is arbitrary, so is our conception of the past. EX: We will never really understand the causes of the Revolution, but each of us can interpret or reinterpret the event as we see fit.

*NOTE: Please remember, these are very generic definitions and simplistic examples and don't begin to cover the wide array of possibilities.

Closely related to 'Schools' of History are 'Philosophies' of History. A philosophy of history explains the forces of history--what moves them and in what direction they are headed. It is an explanation not only of the most important causes of specific events but of the broadest developments in human affairs. There have been three schools of historical thought that are generally agreed upon.

1. Cyclical - (4000 BC - 100 AD): The timeworn 'History Repeats' school. Events periodically re-occur. Essential forces of human nature are unchangeable and so humans make the same decisions, or mistakes, over and over when confronted with similar or identical situations. A cycle of Birth/Life/Death was generally accepted and served as a template for this philosophy.

2. Providential - (100 AD - 18th Century): Primarily a result of the rise of Christianity which held that there was life after death and thus humans could have some form of immortality. This broke the Birth/Life/Death cycle and further believed that Divine Intervention could overthrow the past as the course of history was determined by God. History was an ebb and flow, a constant struggle between good and evil with the eventual victory of good forseen, as determined by God.

3. Progressive - (18th Century - about 1945): Brought about by the scientific and secular age of the Enlightenment. Universal laws of science were unlocked and the question was asked: What are the universal laws of human nature? Human history was a continual progress in which the situation of humanity was improving because of it's own efforts, not God's. Further, each generation built upon the knowledge of the previous. In 1918, after World War I, this idea was challenged and doubt was cast as to whether humanity was really progressing. The interwar years saw serious debates which exploded during and after World War II. Though Fascism and Nazism was defeated, Communism still loomed large as did the threat of nuclear war and the ultimate destruction of mankind. How could this be progress?

So where are we now? There is now no "definitive" philosophy, though many philosophies abound, and many historians question whether a defining philosophy is even possible or necessary.

Up Next: The Meanings of History

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Vacation Time Again

Well, that was quick! After two weeks back at work, it's time for Summer Vacation, II. I'll be out for two weeks, but when I get back I'll be posting a series on Historical Theory and Method. See you then.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Harry Potter and History

In David Broder's recent column about Harry Potter, he Broder wrote about the need for better History standard's in education, noting that our middle- and high school students are losing their knowledge of history. He also mentioned a recent Senate hearing in which David McCullough testified. According to Broder, McCullough noted that of those who teach our students history, "Too many have degrees in education . . . and don't really know the subject they are teaching." As such
McCullough said that the problem starts with the training that teachers receive.

"It is impossible to love a subject you don't know," he said, "and without a passion for history, the teaching of history becomes a matter of rote learning and drudgery."

Without personal knowledge of history and enthusiasm for the subject, "you're much more dependent on the textbook," and, with rare exceptions -- he mentioned the great one-volume American history text by Daniel Boorstin, the late librarian of Congress -- "you read these texts and ask yourself, 'Are they assigned as punishment?' " McCullough, who is nothing if not passionate about the subject, added: "Amnesia of society is just as detrimental as amnesia for the individual. We are running a terrible risk. Our very freedom depends on education, and we are failing our children in not providing that education."

The schools, he said, are also denying them "a source of infinite pleasure," a pastime that can enrich them throughout their lives. "I think we human beings are naturally interested in history. All our stories begin, 'Once upon a time . . . .' To make history boring is a crime."
This is nothing new to historians, but it did spark a thought. What if some organization(s), such as the AHA or OAS, were to develop and disseminate a reading-list of "endorsed" historical fiction? Or, alternatively, what if a some sort of historical fiction primer was developed for every age group? Not being an educator myself, I don't know if such a thing already exists. Does anyone else? I believe that American Studies programs do this sort of thing by using American literature as part of the study of American culture, etc. But history is a bit different than "culture", though the spheres intersect to a great degree. Maybe I'm just looking for historically accurate alternatives to "Washington-chopped-down-the-cherry-tree", stories that can grab the attention of students and pique their interest. History is replete with such real stories, as McCullough has stated, but maybe an alternative or supplement would be the inclusion of some good historical fiction in the mix.