All of us are surrounded by history. History is encapsulated and reflected in our social traditions, our holidays and ceremonies, our education, our religious beliefs and practices, our political and legal systems, even in our popular culture (movies and music frequently draw on historical events and people). One does not need to be a qualified historian to think, talk or write about the past. Anyone can have an interest in history; anyone can read, study or discuss it. The Dutch historian Johan Huizinga once wrote of history that “no other discipline has its portals so wide open to the general public”. Huizinga, who was imprisoned by the Nazis for his historical writing, was quite correct. Discussion and theorising about the past has never been confined to classrooms, lecture theatres or archive rooms. More than any other academic discipline, history is open to all who take an interest in it.
All this has one great advantage: because history is so accessible, historical discussion and interpretation is fundamentally democratic. People are entirely free to consider the past and form their own conclusions. But this also has one significant disadvantage: ‘popular history’ and ‘good history’ are rarely the same thing.There is a considerable gulf between historical understanding in the public and the history constructed by historians. While the general public can be knowledgeable and interested in the past, they seldom apply the same standards of research and evidence as historians. Popular history is often simplified, coloured and manipulated to the point of corruption. There are several reasons for this. People tend to value the story over analysis. When considering the past they like clear and simple explanations. They like to assign responsibility, liability or ‘blame’. They like interesting narratives with moral heroes, immoral culprits and satisfying endings. They also like to think of their own nations and societies as more advanced, civilised or culturally superior than others. But as good history students will know, this type of thinking is not conducive to ‘good history’. History is rarely simple or clear cut, nor is it filled with obvious villains or fulfilling resolutions.
This page summarises some of the problems that can cloud our thinking about the past. These problems are more common in popular history – but historians and history students are by no means immune from them.
Everyone who has read about or discussed the past will know of at least one or two conspiracy theories. These fanciful stories are the gossip of history, whispered and repeated ad nauseam but never supported with concrete evidence. Countless major events in history – from the crucifixion of Christ through to the Kennedy assassination, the Moon landing and 9/11 – have fallen victim to conspiracy theories. Most of these theories focus on one or more powerful groups or organisations, such as Catholics, Jews, Freemasons, Communists, the Illuminati, the G20, the Bilderberg Group, various national governments, the CIA, KGB, MI5 and Mossad. According to conspiracy theorists, these groups conjure and implement subversive plots to exert their control over the world, its people and resources. Many of the world’s problems and misfortunes are laid at the feet of these groups, who are said to operate in the shadows. The problem with conspiracy theories is that they are, by their very definition, baseless theories. Most are based on rumour, unsubstantiated stories, coincidence and circumstantial evidence. Many are so wacky they have only novelty value. But as the rise of Nazism and the Holocaust have shown us, in the right circumstances conspiracy theories can be accepted into the mainstream – and become extremely dangerous.
Popular histories are riddled with myths: stories that are unsupported by evidence, grossly exaggerated or entirely untrue. Most historians are aware of these myths and either ignore them or declare them as either apocryphal or untrue. Non-historians, however, are often more interested in the value and meaning of a story than its historical accuracy. Over time many myths and stories have become accepted as historical fact, simply because they sound appealing or fit into a particular narrative. Many myths have come to be repeated in print, which lends them undeserved credibility. An example of one enduring myth is the story of Paul Revere’s ‘midnight ride’ to warn of British troop movements in Massachusetts in April 1775. Public understanding of this event has been shaped by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1860 poem, Paul Revere’s Ride, which is riddled with historical inaccuracies about Revere’s actions and the events of that evening. As a result of this Longfellow-inspired myth, Revere’s actions and importance to the American Revolution have been exaggerated over time. While these distortions are not usually the work of historians, they tend to create a popular but misleading narrative of historical events like the American Revolution. Historians and history students must be wary of these myths. Just because a story is widely accepted as fact does not make it so.
Nationalism is a sentimental attachment and unquestioning loyalty to one’s own country. Sometimes this attachment becomes so strong that the actions of one’s nation are accepted, justified and supported, whether or not they are right. Nationalists also place the needs and interest of their nation above those of other countries (an attitude encapsulated in a quote attributed to 19th century US politician Carl Schurz: “My country, right or wrong”). History students should be familiar with nationalism, which has fuelled unrest, international tension and war for centuries. But nationalism has also infected and distorted both academic history and popular conceptions of the past. Many individuals – and sadly some historians – find it difficult to accept or engage with criticism of their own country. Needless to say this can lead to an imbalanced view of the past. Sometimes nationalism can distort a nation’s understanding of its own history by colouring or dominating historical narratives. Nationalist histories often exalt or glorify the achievements and progress of a nation – but can also overlook, dilute or explain away its violence or mistreatment of others. An example of this can be found in Japan, where many histories and student textbooks simply ignore the atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers in World War II.
Nostalgia is when we view the past with fondness and affection. As individuals grow older many yearn for their past, recalling it as a time of happiness and harmony. This nostalgia, summarised in the phrase ‘the good old days’, suggests the past to be a much better place than the present. For instance, it is often said of the past that life was simpler and more fulfilling; people were kinder and more respectful; family values were stronger; women looked after the family and the home; children behaved better and ‘knew their place’. Conservative politicians are one group fond of nostalgia and nostalgic statements. In 1982 British prime minister Margaret Thatcher harked back to the 19th century, when she declared that “Victorian values were the values when our country became great”. The problem with nostalgic claims like this is that they are based on emotion and sentiment, not on evidence or objective study. Victorian Britain was indeed a period of national strength, economic progress and conservative family values – but it was also a time of gross poverty, crime, prostitution, harsh penal laws, servitude, inequality of wealth, low wages, intolerable working conditions, child labour, homophobic laws, religious intolerance and colonial oppression. In most cases the ‘good old days’ were not really that good, except for those of wealth and privileged. Historians and history students must always be wary of nostalgic claims and value judgements that weigh the past against the present.
The ‘noble savage’ is an idea that frequently clouds our thinking about non-Western societies. According to the concept of the ‘noble savage’, tribal people who live outside the materialism and corruption of Western civilisation enjoy lives that are simpler, community-oriented, harmonious and fulfilling. The ‘noble savage’ is not interested in gaining territory or wealth, acquiring material goods, exploiting his neighbours or waging war for its own sake. Instead, the ‘noble savage’ is chiefly concerned with the fundamental needs of his community: survival and subsistence, the welfare and development of family groups, the protection of the community, spiritual and cultural fulfilment and interaction with nature. This romantic notion has been applied to many non-Western people, including the natives of North America, African tribal groups and indigenous Australians. But the perception of tribal people as ‘noble savages’ is idealistic and, in most cases, historically flawed. Very few primitive societies functioned as smoothly or harmoniously as this idea suggests. Many tribal groups were inherently militaristic and decision making, rather than being made communally or by wise elders, was dominated by the strong men of the tribe. Many tribal groups endured similar problems to Western societies, including inequalities of power and wealth, control through violence, exploitation, religious and ethnic divisions, misogyny, internecine conflict and inter-tribal wars. Some tribal societies also practised ritual circumcision of both males and females, arranged marriages, polygamy and polygyny, systemic rape, incest, banishment – even human sacrifice, cannibalism and genocide. Historians and students should thoroughly research the history of any tribal society before presuming that its people lived a peaceful and harmonious existence.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn and S. Thompson, “Problems of thinking about history” at Alpha History, http://alphahistory.com/problems-of-history/, 2014, accessed [date of last access].