What Do We “KNOW” About History?

One of my favorite quotes in history is:  

“I am not ashamed to confess I am ignorant of what I do not know” – Marcus Tullius Cicero

I think Cicero hit the nail right on the head. History can often be right in front of us, however, as historians, if we do not research, if we do not delve into what makes history history, then we are all just skimming the surface of an abundance of information about our past.

I often feel this way when I read about various topics in history. However, in some of this week’s readings, the following question came to mind. What do we really “KNOW” about history? I mean if we take everything that EVER happened in history, and I do mean everything, then there would be no way to record it all. Writing about history has got to be subjective, as well as analytical.  In this week’s readings, we got a sense of the many different facets in reading and writing about history, (especially in the George Iggers readings.) We also found that history can evolve, or come to be understood differently, at different periods throughout history itself. The way that history is taught at those various times, is also something that we, as students of history have come to understand as process. (Tosh, pg. 11)

History is a set series of facts, thoughts, ideas, or even myths and legends that are filtered, then written about in such a way that it lends credence to the very famous saying of “history is written by the victors.” What I mean to say, is that there is a lot of history out there that we will never understand or even know about.  When I say that history is filtered, I mean that events, people, etc. have to first be remembered, recorded, preserved, discovered, understood, then accepted and thought to be important, then researched, sometimes thoroughly,( often not,) to eventually become part of history, or what we are taught to know about history.  Throughout time, history has been altered or purged by historians, to blot the memory of a conquered people, or to wipe clean the recorded history of an event.

In the Iggers readings, which I found to be extremely difficult to locate and get a good copy to read online, AND with the library’s copy checked out… (however a BIG shout out to Faith for coming to our rescue,) I eventually was able to get a copy, and MAN what a scholarly book. I was able to get somewhat of a fuzzy picture of what he was explaining, yet I found it to be unnecessary to write about so many historians throughout history. He could have limited the number of people and expanded more on following more of a timeline himself. For instance, he jumps from Herodotus and Thucydides to the German historian Ranke, (thus not following his description of a coherent sequence.) He did seem to make a clear argument, (at least one that I found easier to grasp,) in the section on history becoming more of a “social science.” Here, Iggers talks about the “process of social change” which came from historians overlooking the “social change,” while being too focused on “great men.” The various periods of change throughout history are touched upon in the section that we were assigned, and however scholarly or “wordy” the article was, I still found his arguments to be compelling enough to really cause me to look at the various times in, on which I focus, in a much different light.

As an avid reader of American history, I was surprised when I read William Novak’s “’The Myth of the ‘Weak’ American State.’” When he wrote, “The American Present is at Odds with representation of the American Past,” that really struck a chord with me. Representations?? Who’s to say what is right anymore on what we are being taught? When he also wrote about the “pathological tendency to compose a fictional American ideal…” I was starting to wonder where he was going with this article. However, throughout his article, as he wanted to find the facts that supported that America was weak, he kept finding that America was stronger than most people realized. It is a hidden power that is spread across the government. His ultimate findings were that America has a problem with consolidating this power to prevent her from becoming weak. This power in America is “complex, multi-faceted, and not simple…” Novak pg. 769 This power, which is “complex,” also goes to show how complex the study of history is becoming. The methodology employed to research and write the ultimate historiography of history is changing all of the time.

As I read the segments written by Kyle Ward, in the small handout, I was relieved to see that it was nowhere near as scholarly, and it was even a fun little read. The changes that Ward mentions, especially the ones in regards to Columbus, were really eye opening, because I looked at the section from 1946, and it brought memories flooding back from my 7th grade history class.  Our books were from the 40’s and 50’s, (even though I am not that old,) as this was in the late 70’s. This brought a good laugh (NOT at the information, yet at the difference in perception over five decades.)

Overall, the Tosh chapters kind of mirrored the other authors/historians, only in a more readable and understandable way. His writing seemed to not be as scholarly in word choice, but he was able to convey the same general message. One passage in particular, I found to be quite interesting, as it kind of lays the responsibility of preserving and presenting either at the feet of, or upon the backs of historians. “History has had assigned to it the task of judging the past, of instructing the present for the benefit of the ages to come.” (Tosh pg. 7) Does that mean that we as historians, should judge the past? Should we “dismiss” the past, as Tosh points out, for progress? (Tosh pg. 19) Several other sections in Tosh’s book cover a wide ranging series of topics, which in and of themselves could be covered in book s of their own, not just touched upon. Some of these are very relevant to our world, as we know it today, areas in political, social, and religious history. These areas are important to our modern world, however, they reach back through antiquity, to tell us about the past, and as we historians keep telling people, history has a tendency to repeat itself, but since we are not a “real” science, only a social science, people just as often tend to not listen…

2 thoughts on “What Do We “KNOW” About History?”

  1. Tiny,

    I found the points you made about Novak’s work to be particularly interesting–especially his assertion that the American present is at odds with the representations of the American past. He went on to explain how the historiography of work on America as a state reflected the weakness of its statehood and that this image contrasts largely with the global power of modern-day America–a point that challenged me to reflect on what I have read and have been taught about American History. For myself, the image of a strong, international power has always been the go-to when imaging America, past and present. However, most courses I have taken on American statehood have emphasized a laissez-faire outlook the like of which Monroe or Jefferson would prefer. The point at which America became the globalized entity it is today is traditionally traced back to the World Wars. And I was taught this. So why do I perceive America as having always been such a powerful state?

    I think this question is the one that Novak is addressing as the core problem, suggesting that the process through which America morphed into such a power is missing, or, that America was more powerful a state than its historiography leads us to believe.

    Perhaps we both took something a little different from Novak’s work–but that is one of the core enigma’s about history, the personal encounter that each individual has with it, and how these encounters differ from person to person.

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