Saturday, April 21, 2007

Four Questions to begin a History Course

What is history?

History is more than just the study of our past. It is the study of human nature responding to different but recurring problems. From history we learn about the limitations of our species, its shortfalls as well as its successes and triumphs. I have often viewed history as the matrix through which all knowledge flows. In shirt is the collective librarian keeping track of our progress providing us with possible solutions for both the present and the future.

What factors drive history?

The factors are numerous but these are the most important ones in my opinion -

· Geographical Position – location is critical. Countries sandwiched between two expansionist powers are likely to have a turbulent history – look at Poland that lies between Germany and Russia. Coastal civilizations will rely more on sea power – England, Portugal and the Netherlands. Landlocked countries will develop strong standing Armies – The Mongols and the Austrians
· The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – Famine. Plague, Pestilence and War all exert pressure on a population that in turn lead to certain responses. It can be argued that history is the story of a population’s response to adverse conditions.
· Influential Personalities. Modern historians tend to downplay the role of the ‘Great Man’ in history but there is no doubt that the personalities of such individuals as Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and Napoleon influenced the course of events of their respective times.
· Economic Cycles. There is still much debate as to what causes economic cycles of booms and busts. Everything from sunspot theory, to the whims of human nature have been considered in an attempt to elucidate the trends that influence economic growth.
· Ideology and Philosophy – Communism, fascism, capitalism have all been motivators for a change to the status quo as has been the need for liberalism, nationalism and democracy.

Perhaps one day some genius of untold ability will replicate all these drivers in a mathematical model that accurately mimics our story until then its best to look at these factors through qualitative eyes. Besides which its much more fun.

What is Historical Revisionism?

Historical revision can be either positive or negative. Positive revision involves the updating of the historical record and its interpretation based on new evidence that has become available. This type of revision is not ideologically motivated and is true to the academic spirit. Negative revision is a reinterpretation of the historical record for political and ideological purpose. Very often fact distortion and negation are used to twist the facts to suit the purpose of the writer. This is not only morally corrupt but a crime against history itself with future historians being left with the arduous task of correcting the tainted records for the benefit of all.

What is the role of the historian?

The role of the historian is to uncover, decipher and interpret the record of our past to uncover as true a picture of our legacy as is possible. Since history is filed with information gaps, conflicting observations and missing records the historians task is often daunting and in a sense never complete. However without a history our society lacks much in its collective soul while on a practical level we risk repeating the often costly errors of the past. Historians occupy positions in such fields as academia, journalism, teaching and publishing.

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