The Historian’s Task
Over the last four years, I have learned a great deal about history as a subject but very little about what the true task of an historian is. In today’s blog, I would like to discuss this very issue and figure out how one might go about fixing it.
1. History is an art form.
According to John Fea in his book Reflecting on the Importance of the Past: Why Study History?, “History is a discipline. It is the art of reconstructing the past” (Chapter 1). Most students, myself included, grew up learning about the past by a teacher who didn’t fully understand the gravity of what they were teaching. This is not to say that they didn’t know the facts or had a weak grasp on the technical subjects; rather, they did not know the art of history and how to communicate it properly. Now, I recognize that as children and young people, one must communicate more simply than when a child becomes an adult. This is not the issue at hand. Instead the problem stems from a lack of artistic expression, a type of storytelling with factual integrity. One of the main parts of an historian’s job is the “act of interpretation — taking the facts of the past and weaving them into a compelling narrative” (Fea, Chapter 1). Without using this approach, history begins to look like the white pages of educational studies.
2. History should not be seen through extremes.
As with anything in life, living in one extreme or the other often does not present an individual with a fair and total outlook. One extreme cancels its opposite, and nothing can truly be accepted as correct. Scientists are instructed to be objective when they conduct experiments. Similarly, a third person in a friendship might be asked to give an opinion on their friends’ argument because they have the potential to be objective. “The absolute idea of objectivity is that there must be an antiseptic and complete divorce between the knower and the known” (Lukacs, Lecture 2, Part 1). Sometimes, students of history will learn that they should be objective when writing their papers; for, they do have natural objectivity by (usually) not having a chance to have experienced said historical event. There is an inherent divorce from the situation they are studying.
On the other hand, historians might be told to be subjective. “Subjectivity means there is no objective reality,” says Lukacs. “Everyone sees the world in different ways and that’s all you can do about it” (Lecture 2, Part 1). Much can be said about being subjective when it comes to history — why should one ignore their own personal outlook in order to interpret another? To my understanding, there is no other viable option than to utilize both strategies. Like Fea said, “Historians must come to grips with the fact that they will never be able to provide a complete or thorough account of what happened in the past” (Chapter 1). So long as we recognize our individuality and acknowledge our natural objectivity — given the historical events we study — I’m confident our impact on history will encapsulate more than either extreme. For, to use one without the other would prove ignorant.
3. History, like a phone, has updates.
Historians do not simply record the past nor do they only study the facts. Historians update information. They are revisionists in every sense of the word. Long before I began to fall in love with history, I don’t believe I thought much about what historians actually did. Just as a phone requires updates to its software, history requires updated information as time progresses. History students are often taught how to research and write about history; to learn the facts and create a retelling of the consolidated information. But what they often fail to learn is the process by which they should look at history. For example, after the French Revolution, Napoleon Bonaparte was seen as a hero. France suffered beneath the misrule of The Directory, and French citizens were tired of the royals and existence of elitism. Then, Bonaparte stepped in and seemingly saved the day. France became a super power very quickly and the French people were feared like never before. Historians seeing the effects of his glorious victories in Europe would have easily recorded him to be a hero and savior of France. However, Napoleon did have his downfall. Later historians would need to update those original records — and the process would continue until our current day. Without revising history in any way, no one would fully understand or remember the truth.
4. History requires pursuers of truth.
“Though the historical task is always limited by our distance from the past, historians must never cease in their pursuit of truth” (Fea, Chapter 1). It is interesting to note that, in today’s age, the definition of truth is changing. What once referred to a factual, honest subject is now meant to be completely discretionary. Whatever one says is “their truth” now means it becomes the reality, not necessarily what actually happened. If I stubbed my toe on a corner table, the reality is that it hurts. But if this happened and I claimed “my truth” was that I didn’t stub my toe and it didn’t hurt, I would be denying reality…I would be accepting a false narrative. A relative understanding of true reality.
That is why historians must be diligent in their efforts. Before now, I wouldn’t have worried about recording, revising, and retelling the honest facts. Unfortunately, I think there are others out there who don’t want the truth to be remembered. Without truth, people are powerless and manipulable. So, it is essential that students of history always search for the truth, no matter how difficult it may be. It’s just as Lukacs said, “You have to get through a jungle of untruth to pursue truth” (Lecture 2, Part 4).
- Fea, John. Reflecting on the Importance of the Past: Why Study History? Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013.
- “John Lukacs — Lecture 2, Part 1.” Eastern University. December 4, 2009. YouTube video, 10:30. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CvfogDIU2m8&t=1s
- “John Lukacs — Lecture 2, Part 4.” Eastern University. December 4, 2009. YouTube video, 8:18. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OheJW6qmXnA