Saturday, April 9, 2011

Lies, damn lies and history.

We have always told stories about the past to make sense of the world and ourselves. Not only does history provide the foundation for shared belief systems vital for social cohesion, it can also facilitate social change. Storytellers who claim the authority of truth over the past hold immense power but how can we be sure the stories they tell are True?

Truth is a fairly recent measure for evaluating the past - many myths and legends were once accepted versions of the human story. In many oral societies The Truth was judged on the reputation of storytellers or what majority thought worthy of belief. It is easy to forget too, that we have only recently become familiar with a multitude of different global belief systems. In a not too distant past individuals nearly always grew up in isolated communities to a more or less homogenous world-view.

Historians have long debated the best ways to turn ‘facts’ into ‘history and the stakes have never been higher, for today we navigate an online world that offers us countless competing interpretations.

19th century historian Leopold von Ranke developed a method of 'scientific history' by which he believed historical truth could be uncovered. His method? Harness historic evidence (documents, records etc) to prove undeniable facts... then arrange these into a readable narrative. That the true story could be accessed in this way remained largely unchallenged until the 1960’s when historian E. H. Carr stood in front of his peers at Cambridge University and proclaimed ‘this clearly will not do!’.

Carr rejected the idea that the facts existed objectively and independently of the historian, noting that in order to create meaning historians must decide which facts are considered important and selected and suggesting it more appropriate to study the historian before you begin to study the facts.

Despite acknowledging the effect that the historian had in ‘creating’ history, Carr was confident that historians could access the past. He believed that historians studying the same event might produce many interpretations - all with the potential to shed light on the past. Postmodern scholars disagreed. If history is as much about the historians world view and beliefs, they asked, how can any one version of the past be more True than another? And if this is the case, how can we possibly tell fact from fiction?

While raising important questions (and perplexing generations of university students) the complexity of post-modern analysis has, at times, risked isolating the general public from their own history. Historian David Lowenthal has noted that ‘the gulf between sophisticated chroniclers and the public seems to widen all the time’ - perhaps the single biggest threat to the quest for Truth.

Today digital technology has democratized the truth and allows storytelling on an unprecedented scale. Is this the greatest threat academic historians have ever encountered... or the biggest opportunity? Can the internet save History? I'm excited about the possibilities.

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