Should We Question History Told?

Carolyn Edwards, PhD
9 min readAug 28, 2023

Our political views are directly related to our views of history. Conversely, political views shape how history is taught. Edward Hallett Carr wrote the well-respected book, “What is History” in 1961. The book questions what is considered history, how history is recorded, what facts are included, and what is fact versus perspective. These heavy questions are relevant to how we view ourselves, society, and history. Our social and political opinions are formulated by our personal history and what history is taught to us. Our individual history and a historian’s view of history is unique. Combined, these two sources makes accepted history a muddled conclusion of individual facts and bias.

Let me offer an illustrative example of how personal perspectives influence our acceptance of history. When my oldest son was a child, he had a “who dunnit” birthday party. While opening his gifts, a masked person came to the party and stole some of his presents. We asked the children to file a “police” report on what they saw, what they knew, and to describe the “suspect” to a sketch artist. Fifteen children took their time with the “detective” and described details from prior to the theft to after the theft. All of the children witnessed the “crime” from approximately the same distance. The results from the reports and artists were presented to the group and the “perpetrator” was returned to the scene. The description of the crime and the criminal ranged widely including discrepancies in appearance, number of items taken, use of a weapon, and the time it took to commit the crime.

The resulting “police report” showed about a 50% composite accuracy reporting rate according to a video recording taken of the crime. It is fair to say discrepancies may have resulted from testimonies by child witnesses (around age 12) but, when things happen unexpectedly and amid other distractions, adults do not necessarily provide better reports. One could argue age provides more preconceptions and bias in reporting that distorts or eliminates facts.

The following experiment demonstrates how people fill in missing information with previous knowledge and biases. Show someone a partial depiction of a well-known picture or object and ask what the subject should be in its entirety. Most people seeing a partial picture of a dollar bill assume there is a picture of George Washington in the middle and mentally fill in the missing details to the best of their recollection. They might feel confident concluding the picture is a dollar bill even if vague on the details of the portrait of Washington. Whether one can complete the visual picture to match a dollar bill becomes less significant based on one’s confidence of facts from personal history and experience. There is a problem when recorded and learned history is supported with facts from preconceived perceptions that fill in missing details.

Carr posits our views when defining history are consciously and unconsciously influenced by our personal place in time. Preconceived ideas and self-determination regarding the relevancy of presented or missing facts distort historical reporting. Carr compares history “facts” to recipe ingredients. How ingredients are chosen, gathered, prepared, and served are at the discretion of the “chef,” similar to a historian making their case.

What are the chances that someone using Julia Child’s chicken recipe will produce exactly the same meal prepared by Julia Child? The recreating chef’s outcome may have little in common with Julia Child’s prepared chicken other than starting with a chicken. Choosing facts to record history is similar to a chef deciding which seasoning to use, the size of the chicken, the roasting time, and which ingredients to use or exclude. These decisions are all subject to personal preferences influenced by how we envision the final recreated meal. The only consistent component to Julia Child’s recipe for recreating chefs is using a chicken but even that can be replaced with another ingredient like a duck. Just as chefs prepare meals based upon their personal preferences, historians can present history based on their own biases.

Historians begin their research by reviewing what has previously been written. It is rare that a historian has the ability to speak to active event participants with the passage of time. Even if available, a witness’s version is subject to individual recollection and interpretation. The further away (time and distance) the historian is from the event, the more dependent they are on previously recorded history. The historian is more likely to repeat what has traditionally been accepted as fact. The average person accepts what they have been repeatedly told as truth due to the telling’s repetition and trust in the source of information.

History is subject to political manipulation. It is normal to accept versions of history that fit our personal narrative and perspective. This acceptance of bias is exemplified when innocent people go to prison because of assumptions and preconceived ideas. If a socially elite person and a homeless person are considered suspects in a crime, many people will assume the homeless person is more desperate or less moral than the wealthy suspect. This results in an assumption of guilt until proven innocent for the person viewed socially as “less” than others while the socially elite is considered innocent until proven guilty. This assumption has nothing to do with specific facts but purely our own preconceptions and biases. What if evidence reveals the wealthy person had a long-standing dispute with the victim? Does this change our assumptions of guilt or innocence for each suspect?

Carr questions the acceptance of personal notes, memoirs, and recorded conversations as definitive facts and history. A person can decide what to keep and discard based on their own perspective or potential legacy. The Presidential Records Act (PRA) of 1978 requires presidents to save and submit all personal correspondence and notes to the National Archives for historical documentation. As we know from recent history, this is not always a fulfilled commitment. Whether there is an intentional or accidental omission, missing historical documentation is still the net result of what is used to record history.

We cannot definitively say all presidential records are archived in their original state as required or, if some records have been removed or destroyed because they are collected after the passage of time. Therefore, even primary sources may be incomplete or taken out of context. However, primary sources are considered the most reliable source for historical documentation. Reading the Constitution without reading the Federalists and Anti-Federalist papers is an example of reading the final original document without understanding the thought process behind its composition including varying opinions from the Founders, counter-arguments, and compromises.

Regardless of who reports history, all history is political. History curriculum and libraries are targets of political attacks across the United States. The single fact that history is disputed based on its telling could be a positive change if it were based on historical and not political ideology. Political ideology causes division in our country by replacing critical thinking with indoctrination.

No matter how hard a historian or educator tries to be apolitical, the melding of the facts with individual perspective makes the output political. Just ask people what caused the Civil War. A simplified explanation of slavery or taxes will mostly likely draw a regional line. Not all Northerners or Southerners will choose one side but for those who take a position, it is pretty evident their geographic region can be influential. Slavery, emancipation, states’ rights, and even Abraham Lincoln are complex stories culminating in the Civil War and Reconstruction. Some people view Lincoln on a pedestal while others see him as an aggressor. Although Lincoln was human, flawed, and complex, few people dig deep into the details of his life and presidency to judge him because their opinion already fits their personal narrative.

Carr contends history is the combination of the event and the thought behind the event. When the Civil War began, what was the objective on either side? Was Lincoln trying to end slavery or save the Union? Was the South concerned with states’ rights, tariffs, slavery, or all of these? When Lincoln emancipated the slaves, was this a moral, economic, or political decision? Was he concerned with emancipation and equality, or did he want to emigrate the freed slaves back to Africa or the Caribbean? Did Lincoln evolve in his thinking, or did he remain true to his original thoughts at the outset of the war? Many people fill in their own responses to these types of questions rather than doing research for a more informed opinion. A plethora of primary sources including Lincoln’s speeches and letters exists illustrating his more complicated profile than the bestowed title of demon or saint, but few people read them.

Just as historical figures may have evolved, our own interpretation of history can and should evolve. Taking a stand based on our personal interpretation from a superficial teaching or learning from a few established historians is not sufficient to debate either side of the argument. Everyone’s interpretation of history can be questioned. Ideally, forming one’s opinion should be based upon research from multiple sources — especially those versions that are different from our own.

One approach to understanding history is similar to one that debaters and lawyers utilize. When taking debate in high school, my teacher routinely provided controversial debate topics and often assigned sides to students who had personally opposing perspectives. This strategy forced students to study the opposition and present the assigned counter-argument as their own. Taking the opposing side is eye-opening for the student and provides clarity into opposing viewpoints.

Lawyers practice this process of debating both sides before a trial. They may or may not believe their client, but lawyers are obligated to present a strong argument on their client’s behalf. They must also anticipate the opposing counsel’s arguments and facts. Even horrible criminals are entitled to present their version of history. A jury hears both sides, reviews the “facts,” listens to witnesses, and then decides what to accept and reject based on their own perspectives. Why shouldn’t history be presented and analyzed the same way? We are all jurors of history.

Rather than banning or limiting history curriculum, we should be expanding and diversifying history sources. A singular state approved textbook is nothing more than force-feeding a politically acceptable, singular version of history that has been repeated and accepted as fact for decades or longer. History takes on different perspectives based on region, economic class, education, gender, race, and politics. It is impossible for a singular source to incapsulate these diverse perspectives. We should not fear what is contrary to our own opinion. Our personal perspectives will ultimately determine what we accept as factual history. The more ingredients in our history education, the stronger our democratic republic. If you don’t understand the difference between a democracy, a republic, and a democratic republic, it’s a good starting point to research!

References:

Carr, Edward Hallett. What is history? New York: Vintage Books, 1961.

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Carolyn Edwards, PhD

PhD in urban education with a research focus on U.S. history, white supremacy, and systemic inequity