Thursday, October 6, 2011

On The Necessity of Revisionist History

I seem to recall, in my “Intro to History” class, an entire class period on the unreliability of revisionist history.  While I appreciate the professor’s conservative viewpoint and his concerns about the objectivity of such history, I am convinced that projects of revisionist history must take place.

History is not written objectively.  Historians, even those doomed to write elementary-school textbooks, each have a battery of personal biases which color their writing.  Sometimes they try to correct these biases by sticking with time-honored traditions of history.  There are enough facts to back up nearly any interpretation, so this isn’t obviously doing bad history.  But historians in this situation forget that the original writers of the time-honored traditions had their own biases, many of which have been manifestly proven faulty.

Have you ever had that moment in your life when you learn one thing which entirely changes your perspective on a past situation?  Such “moments” occur on a collective level as well, though they usually take a while.  If history were still being written with all the perspectives of the 1800’s, modern readers would find it obviously faulty.  For instance, a modern history book which approved of the racist attitudes of early Americans would be morally execrable.  Although people scorn “revisionist history,” it is in fact inevitable.

Of course what is feared by anti-revisionists is not the new philosophy itself, but the selective fact-checking, guided by that new philosophy which the revisionist historian in question adheres to.  But here’s a news-flash for the non-historian public: ALL HISTORY IS MERELY INTERPRETATION OF DATA.  There is far too much data available, and an unknown amount of data which we simply have no way of knowing, for every historian to take into account every piece of data.  Like any other scientist, social scientist, or communicator, historians have theses which they set out to prove or refute.  Whether or not you agree with that thesis isn’t the point.  The historian, like any other academic, is making an argument.  Like any other argument, the historical claim stands or falls on the strength of the data and warrant.

Even at the time of their occurrence, historical events were perceived in multiple ways.  Such multiplicity of experience has inspired most postmodern writers to question the knowability of “what actually happened.”  Given piles of historical evidence and layers of historical interpretation developed over intervening decades or centuries, it really should not be any surprise that an objective telling of history is impossible.  But this does not mean that there aren’t better or worse ways of “doing history,” and when a better way of “doing history” develops, whether it is better methodology or a better interpretive framework (though there is of course greater difficulty in proving a better interpretive framework), revision is necessary.

My concern would, of course, be sparked if it happens that a new revision of history is not critiqued, discussed, or challenged.  If the entire historical community jumps wholesale on a new bandwagon without questioning it first, that bandwagon may be suspect.

But don’t worry.  We historians are a diverse crowd.  There are crotchety old folks who have been writing history for the past half-century and young people who come up with new ideas every week.  There are historians of every period, every aspect of history, from every perspective you could imagine.  And we are zealous guardians of our own particular research specialty, ready to rip apart discreditable sources which infringe on our territory.  There has, of course, been completely bogus “research” which has slipped through the cracks, but for the most part I think peer-approved revisions of history have earned respectful consideration.

So fear not.  Though history is just an interpretation of a compilation of interpretations, it can be held to certain standards, and it can evolve into “better” history.  Really, I think the realization that human knowledge is flawed offers a certain freedom.  Our understanding might be wrong, but it can be improved.  Our interpretation might be sketchy, but it can be corrected.  And sure that correction will not be perfect, but it will hopefully be headed in the right direction.

The postmodern age has questioned the knowability of history, but there is real data out there waiting to be interpreted.  We can still learn from history, and we can still enjoy those unbelievable stories of the past which are, as they say, stranger than fiction.  So don’t give up on historians.  If you don’t like something we say, argue with us.  We’ll argue back.  It’ll be fun.

Still a dedicated history nerd,