The objective of most higher-level education in general, and specifically of liberal education, is often misunderstood. The goal is not necessarily in direct preparation for a particular skill or for employment, but instead has a more indirect aim of instilling knowledge, frames of reference and the ability to think and express oneself.
History is particularly rich in the opportunity it offers for learning how to think, owing in part to the challenges inherent in its subject matter and to the strong tradition among historians of cultivating the general powers of intellect. The techniques of historical study and thinking, exacting as they are, nonetheless have a high “carry-over” value for other subjects and activities. As such, one cannot help but appreciate the historian’s unique plight, and subsequently to see the value in his work as applied to all our lives, as human beings. To begin, we must understand and accept that “History is constructed reality” (Burnstyn, 19870), given the simple fact that neither the historian nor the scholar has direct, first-hand knowledge of the events he is studying. As such, he is compelled to refer to documents, statements, or other evidence that pre-dates him and that he assumes represents the past, giving him some insight as to what took place.
The trouble is that no single artifact is entirely representative of a time or place. Rather, it is the result of, and is equally subject to, individual interpretations at one particular instance in time. The evidence then, cannot intrinsically or independently reflect any given event or its context. It requires the discerning, well-versed historian to give it “meaning” by attempting to deduce the circumstances under which the artifact came to be, and what the particular piece really does represent. In attempting to do this, the historian endeavors to reconstruct reality by factoring in various principles and other sources of information, resulting in a cohesive sum wholly different from any of its parts.
This reconstructive process is a perilous one, fraught with potential for misinterpretation and/or misuse of the facts. The ambiguity of the “facts” themselves are clearly problematic, but more so are the ways those facts are discovered and subsequently presented. How does a historian know when he has reached genuine testimony of an event that transpired before he himself had even existed? Pictures can lie, and printed matter can be partisan – though commonly accepted as being true likenesses of their subjects, photographs and portraits (the former more so than the latter), are actually only indicative of what either the subject or the artist wanted others to see. Bearing this caveat in mind, pictures then become subject to the same scrutiny as any other piece of evidence, so much so that examining the angle, focus, location and pose of pictures becomes more revealing than perhaps the picture itself. Think about it: why was this subject or information deemed important enough to paint or take a picture of, and by whom? For what purpose and/or audience was it intended, and how if at all, did that intention differ from it’s actual use? What was going on around the subject that didn’t get captured in the picture? With any of these questions left unanswered, it becomes apparent that though a picture may well be worth a thousand words, they can still only tell half the story. Clearly then, the historian must approach his search for knowledge with a critical eye for potentially misleading information.
However, in stripping away the layers of subjectivity that were superimposed on the “facts” by times, places and people before him, can he simultaneously assure that these layers are not replaced with his own assumptions and interpretations in the process? The very search for objective evidence, however noble in intent, necessarily involves some preconceived notions of where to look and what to look for. Subjectivity, a priori assumptions, and hindsight will undoubtedly direct the historian’s focus and research, as well as colour his interpretation of his findings. A very good example of this is the tendency for leaders of governments or movements to use history as propaganda. Much traditional teaching of history has been utilized for indoctrination, particularly for glorifying the national state and conditioning loyalty in children.