Sep. 22, 2006

Regarding the Study of the Past and Writing Histories

The post-modernist position regarding history, as I understand it from Keith Jenkins’ introduction to Rethinking History, argues that individuals do not have the ability to write about the past. Post-modernists argue that there is not enough evidence from the past to re-create even a small moment in the historical narrative. Whatever evidence is available to the writer may be interpreted out of context because each writer brings his or her own biases to the table when writing history. Finally, even if an author’s interpretation history does in some way reflect the past, readers will also understand this interpretation in a different context because of the biases, beliefs, and pressures that the readers are experiencing.

Is there a point to studying history if all histories are merely individual historians’ interpretations of the past and not reflections of events that occurred in the past?

I am neither able nor do I wish to respond directly to the post-modernist argument regarding the study of the past and the writing of history. On the other hand, the ideas raised and questions posed by the post-modernist argument create an opportunity to examine my own reasons for studying history.

The study of history is essential in helping me to build an identity and to identify elements in the world around me.
As a historian, I am very curious to understand how we (whether as individuals, as a society, or as a global community) have gotten to here. What events occurred between Then and Now to make us who we are and our world what it is? If we build histories based on our own biases, as the post-modernists would have us believe, are there defining moments that we can logically agree have led to certain circumstances in the present? History then is important because knowing where I come from gives me a better sense of who I am.

There is a sense of fulfillment to be had from studying history.
As a researcher, it is exciting to come across a document or piece of evidence giving insight into the past. It is satisfying to be able to put together a logical narrative from the evidence used. As a student, it is rewarding to finally comprehend another author’s argument and point of view. History then can be an enjoyable pastime.

It is a joy and a privilege to be able to share histories with others.
Whether conveying my own interpretation of the past or helping individuals to come up with their own interpretation, it is a powerful experience to be able to share ideas and thereby share in and contribute to the creation of identity and fulfillment of study.

There is a value in the honing interpretive and argumentative skills that are critical to the study of the past.
Perhaps there is no way to determine an absolute truth about the past, but what are the most logical truths? How can historians creatively interpret evidence to create a historical narrative? How must evidence be presented in order to be relayed to the reader the way that the author intended the evidence to be read? The ability to interrogate sources of information and convey ideas in a clear, reasonable way are not just important scholarly skills, but important life skills for individuals as friends, workers, and citizens. To study history is a way to improve one’s self as a person.

Others will likely have other reasons for studying history, and those reasons will be as valuable as my own. May our collective reasons for studying history continue to be the foundation upon which we work to understand ourselves and the world around us.