A Question of Interpretation
January 29, 2016 5 Comments
This is interesting. Here we base most of our stories on history, whether it is that of a British regiment, or the church, the American Revolution, or politics, or whatever. We firmly believe that we should make decisions based partly on what happened when similar decisions were made in the past.
If there were no other reason, and there are many, it would be sufficient to say that it reduces the scope of ‘the Law of Unintended Consequences’ because some of them have already happened. That’s partly why those who want to make unprecedented change almost always denigrate history, such as the often heard disdain for ‘old, dead, white men’. Thing is, those guys have something to teach us because they had many of the same problems we do, and often hit on the same solutions. So, they provide a guide as to what works, and what doesn’t, if we read and learn.
Yet those lessons can often be clear as mud. Why? Because history is an interpretation, it’s not the complete story. It can’t be. There was a Republican debate just last night, maybe you watched it, as I did. If we wrote the lessons we learned from it, they would likely be quite different. That’s last night. Now, what if it was between Charles I and Oliver Cromwell about 400 years ago. And all we have to go on is what the published reports said. If we spin those reports enough, we probably can posit almost anything.
And that is in some ways what historians have to work with. In my experience, most (but not all) do a very good job of trying to being objective, and writing the truth, as it presents to them. Some, like politicians, serve an agenda rather than the truth, but they are, usually a minority. If they become the majority, history becomes essentially useless, and reputable historians know it and pay attention.
One of those very reputable ones is Suzannah Lipscomb, Head of History at The New College of the Humanities, London, and she explains this very well, I think.
In the term before Christmas I was teaching first-year undergraduates. At the end of each term those who have been lecturing and tutoring get together with each student to talk about how it has gone. They are bright students who made great progress, but a repeating theme that emerged from this general round-up was the need for them to develop their own voices in the midst of the historical argument: to imagine, with each essay, that they take their seat at the dinner table of historians who have written in that field and then join in the debate. This is no new counsel. I remember a comment written on one of my undergraduate history essays at Oxford by my then-tutor, Susan Brigden, with her characteristic elegance of phrase: ‘Don’t bow with such becoming submission to the secondary authorities.’
History is debate, history is discussion, history is a conversation. Hugh Trevor-Roper wrote in 1957, ‘history that is not controversial is dead history’. While some of this controversy comes from the pronouncements of historians as public intellectuals addressing the present day, much of it comes from them arguing with each other. The collective noun for historians is – honestly – an ‘argumentation’.
Continue reading: A Question of Interpretation | History Today.
I love that phrase, as well as the admonition:
‘Don’t bow with such becoming submission to the secondary authorities.’
That’s some really good advice, even when you apply it to me!