Recent messages I have been getting have prompted me to make this post. I have written about historical silences before: you can read that essay here, but I feel like this issue needs to be readdressed, especially with the mentioning of historic “facts.”
The 19th century, sometimes referred to as the “age of facts,” revolutionized the way historians presented history. Ranke in the 1830s remarked that the task of the historian was simply to show how it really was—a theory that reinforced the empirical philosophy which was in vogue at the time. Facts were seen as independent of the observer’s consciousness, and thus, as objective. By distancing the sociohistorical process (what happened) and historical knowledge (what is said to have happened), historians were able to solidify history as an objective, scientific profession. The professionalization of history as a discipline allowed for the popularization of the theory of positivism. For those of you who do not know what positivism is, basically, in the positivist assumption of history, individual narratives do not matter; instead, facts are the predominant goal of the historian. The commonsensical understandings of what historians should do tend to be based on these implicit positivist assumptions. The layperson (yeah, sort of pompous, I know) believes that the historian’s role is to reveal the past and to discover the truth. Basically, from this perspective history consists of ascertained facts that are available to the historian “like fish on the fishmongers slab.” The historian collects these facts and then presents them in a way in which a conclusion can be drawn: this is the common sense view of history. But really, according to many historians, historical facts come to produce historical narratives—an approach that runs counter to the common understanding of history. My main argument right now is that positivism and the commonsensical understanding of history are flawed due to the disregard of interpretation and the process through which historical narratives are produced.
In the positivist view, history is at best a story about power, revolving around those who have won. Positivism rejects power as a source of historical silences, citing it as irrelevant to the production of narratives; yet my question is, if power is irrelevant in constructing narratives, why are some narratives held in higher regard than others? What makes one narrative more accepted than another? In constructing a narrative, the historian has the power to chose what is trivial, and thus, has the power to decide how “what happened” becomes “that which is said to have happened.” When the historian labels a viewpoint as irrelevant, striking it from their narrative, they are exercising a form of archival power. This power helps solidify a concrete narrative for public consumption, perpetuating the myth that history has “definite” facts. But really, what is a historical fact? The only force that distinguishes the facts of history from other facts of the past is the historian; facts speak only when the historian calls on them. Unlike what positivists would like to believe (facts speak for themselves), the selection and arrangement of appropriate facts influences how people will read history. This is problematic for an “objective” history due to the very concept of an “appropriate” fact. What constitutes an appropriate fact? Is that not up to the historian’s judgment? If the common sense view of history states that there are certain basic facts that are the same for all historians and that these facts all form the backbone of history, then why are certain facts held in higher regard than others? Facts hold unequal weight in discourse, and thus, the historian must be selective. Interpretation enters into every facet of history because historical facts do not exist independently of the selection process that creates them—to believe that facts exist independently and objectively is a fallacy.
Ultimately, history is neither concerned with the past in itself nor with the historian’s thought by itself, but with the interaction between the two. History is both an interpretative process and an empirical one, and just as how one cannot disregard narratives, one also cannot disregard the facts. Facts exist, but the historian will be purposefully looking for certain “facts,” and thus, history is interpretive: “The historian without his facts is rootless and futile; the facts without the historian are dead and meaningless.”
And when you really think about it, each historical narrative claims to be the “truth,” so how exactly does one distinguish between truth and fiction? For one, there is not a concrete divide between the two and different eras and locations have separated the two in distinctive ways. Previously, it was thought that nonwestern societies did not differentiate between fiction and the truth, but this is certainly not the case; thus, if history functions in all societies, what is the distinguishing factor? Ultimately, the break between history and fiction is expressed through the evaluation of specific narratives. Spurred on by controversy (usually) collectivities feel the need to impose a test of credibility on events because the events matter to them. A fluid boundary exists between the sociohistorical process and historical knowledge which reiterates the point that “facts” come to produce narratives, but historians selectively choose relevant facts, it is not a purely empirical and objective process.
So, what I have been trying to say in those past couple of paragraphs is that historians are able to choose which facts become the main narrative which is then disseminated to the general public—it is at this moment where historical silences become a factor. When marginalized groups are not represented within main narratives (quite frequent), it is impossible to understand history holistically. Due to the underrepresentation of less privileged groups within main narratives, there is a continuation of institutionalized, archival silence. Those in power, usually historians or the government, decide that certain perspectives are trivial to understanding historic events, and thus, they are excluded from narratives, exercising the archival power of historians. These silences are then disseminated to the general population under the guise of education and knowledge, and thus, there is a perpetuation of this institutionalized silence. The unequal distribution of knowledge shape public understandings in a way that those in power deemed fit. The issue of disseminated knowledge is still one that is a controversial topic is the field of history—the history standard debates of the 1990s attest to that. There is continuous complaint about political bias when discussing what should be taught in the classroom. Yet still, the history standards set forth are determined by those in positions of power, and their views on which narratives should be accepted are increasingly taught to the general public. The power that factors into the knowledge available contributes to the silencing of narratives that are deemed irrelevant, providing a misleading notion of what history is and perpetuating the positivist, everyday understanding of history.
The history standard debates of the 1990s are truly, in my opinion, a reflection of the issues of historic facts and silences. In 1986 it was revealed that two-thirds of the nation’s 17-year-olds could not place the Civil War in the correct half-century. A subsequent national test reported that 60% of high school were” below basic” in their grasp of American history. In search of a remedy, the Bush administration (1992) awarded a contract to the National Center for History in the Schools of the UCLA to develop voluntary national standards for what students should know about American and world history. For the next two years the center consulted large numbers of teachers and scholars, but when the standards were released in 1994 there was a huge controversy with one of the lead critics being Lynne Cheney. She criticized the standards for excessive devotion to multiculturalism, political correctness, and America’s shortcomings, while paying little attention to the nation’s heroes, scientific achievements, and legacy of political freedom. In an article written by Cheney titled “The End of History” she writes that those who had overseen drafting the standards were pursuing a revisionist agenda and that they had a great hatred for traditional history. She then went on to stay that political groups such as African American organizations and Native American groups complained about what they saw as omissions and distortions, and as a result, in order to be “inclusive” the team at UCLA left out traditional history.
But what is traditional history? There is a routinely purge of narratives that are repugnant to group pride. “I don’t want 16-year-olds walking out of there thinking badly of the United States,” a Massachusetts congressman explained his opposition to the Smithsonian’s abortive Enola Gay exhibition. Representative Sam Johnson, a new Smithsonian Regent, stated: “We’ve got to get patriotism back into the Smithsonian. We want the Smithsonian to reflect real America and not something that a historian dreamed up.”
The “real” America of patriotic dreams has long dominated school history texts. Showing national heroes in an uncomplimentary fashion even though it is factually accurate is offensive and patriotism is a huge aim for most of school history. Publishers expunge anything awkward or even debatable. “Are you going to tell kids that Thomas Jefferson didn’t believe in Jesus?” a textbook editor asked a history teacher. “Not me! If there’s something that’s controversial, it’s better to take it out.” The desire to rewrite the past to conform with group pride is too universal to be dismissed as a conspiracy, historians concede, nor is it sinister to want to manipulate national history, as we all do with our own lives. “We choose to remember mistakenly what we need to remember,” comments a historian, “to preserve our individual and collective identities.”
Furthermore, proponents of “traditional history” argue that in the aftermath of 9/11, it is more important than ever for students to learn the history of their nation, the principles on which it was founded, the workings of its government, the origins of our freedoms. History teaches students how to be citizens, to understand their world, and to comprehend America’s relationships to other nations. Mastering history binds the public together, creating a common civic identity based on a patriotism of principles, and thus, united the public in the shared undertaking that is both the past and the future
Debates over history teaching and interpretation are long-standing, and cannot be pinned on some imagined recent takeover of schools by liberal teachers and professors (as some advocates of traditional history claim). Furthermore, no history is “objective”—it never has been, it never will be, and it should not pretend to be. And lastly, understanding history in its entirety (for better, for worse) is not “unpatriotic.” “Truthful,” inclusive history is essential to understanding this country’s past and present (as I mentioned before). History has been politicized and thus, it has been subject to selection. Through the politicization of history, it becomes more evident that historical “facts” have contributed to historical silences. Narratives are skewed in the sense that there is a fundamental controversy between inclusiveness and the traditional narrative that disregards marginalized groups, with textbooks predominately sticking to the traditional perspective. This is problematic.
Anyway, I could keep ranting about this but it is really late and I do not even know how coherent this is because I wrote it in like a half hour so I will edit it when I am less tired…probably.
Here are the sources I use when constructing this piece:
Edward Hallett Carr, What is History?, (London: Macmillan and Co. Ltd, 1961).
Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1995).
“History, Democracy, and Citizenship: The Debate over History’s Role in Teaching Citizenship and Patriotism”, The Organization of American Historians(2004)
Albert Shanker Institute, Education for Democracy, (Albert Shanker Institute: 2003).
Chester E. Finn, Jr., foreword to Effective State Standards for U.S. History: A 2003 Report Card , by Sheldon Stern (Thomas B. Fordham Institute: 2003).
David Lowenthal, Fabricating Heritage, History and Memory vol. 10 (Indiana University Press,1998).
Diane Ravitch, Arthur Schlesinger, The New, Improved History Standards, Wall Street Journal (1996).
Lynne Cheney, The End of History, The Wall Street Journal (1994)