History is a subject that usually leaves me dissatisfied. It may be that I have the wrong approach in the way I think about it, but it has consistently left me feeling uncertain over the years.
We learn history from many sources; oral stories told by our family, which usually cover anecdotes and interesting tidbits; written texts by historians out there; the news of the day and from other times; from textbooks.
Now, oral stories are notoriously unreliable. I know, because I’ve seen the deformation of anecdotes firsthand during my lifetime – which is still on the short end of the scale. Stories about grandparents and further back in time… I can only expect they retain no more than a passing resemblance to what was going on.
The books by historians are in some ways similar to the news: they go through a publisher’s hands, they are subject to all kinds of pressures and interests. The winners write history.
Textbooks, at least in my country, are increasingly regulated. In public education they are literally handpicked. This kind of history has the strongest, most viable path to being censored/edited by an interested party, because there’s a single bottleneck in an office in a government building.
How can we ever be certain of what happened? All the time I’m uncovering facts that contradict my earlier knowledge in ways so blatant that it allows me to see that it’s not a model I’ve built: it’s a model I’ve been handed, and has been socially validated, and may or may not have anything to do with reality or what someone wants me to think about myself and my environment.
Many aspects of history are subtly manipulated in ways I’ve learned to identify over time, and which make me react intensely.
Attributing intent to people is one of those; defending actions in hindsight is another. It makes me want to see proof – that a certain intent was there, that a certain datum was there, that people demonstrated thinking with a certain pattern or using certain tools. But when I think about what kind of proof that would require, it is then that I feel helpless. See, because of my (hopefully healthy) dose of skepticism, I understand that I shouldn’t treat much of history as more than fables and fiction.
On the other hand, the effects of history are real. The effects of perceived history are just as real, although maybe not as intense. I think, then, that there is use for understanding what the world thinks of its own history, because that allows us to have a working model, a framework from which to work and communicate.
But we should be careful of the way we extrapolate, the way we apply the model to our current situations. Historic data we use as input for the way we think must be tested and considered “possibly wrong”, and the truthfulness we assign to it part of the model we’re working with.
So, I’m skeptic and mighty and have an unbreakable vow not to trust history? Not quite. I’m gullible with historical information – we all are, as humans are attuned to stories in their patterns of thinking and remembering. But I do take care when I have the opportunity to make a decision based on the past. Even for events in which I’ve been involved I try to get other versions, other sides to the story, to have better probability of understanding what truly was going on. On more than one occasion I’ve been surprised.
I acknowledge that this position is not very elegant; it imposes a huge burden upon the people looking back and looking forward, trying to make good choices. It seems questions the validity of basically everything we think we know about the past, although it actually only questions the accuracy of most of what we assume we know from the data we see… yes, not much better.
Nonetheless, I’d like to be proven wrong time and again. The way that’d work is by having a decision being taken on account of a model based in the understanding of what happened a some time ago, the further ago the better because accuracy dies over time. And have the decision work for reasons consistent with the model. I’ve seen this on many decisions taken from personal experience in management, software development, teaching, which tells me that many people really understand what they’re about in their daily work. It may be hard to set up a large scale experiment, but in the absence of data to validate our beliefs, we should acknowledge that lack instead of just defaulting to the most comfortable side