There has been much discussion over the content and curriculum that is being, should be, or should not be taught in social studies and history classes throughout education. Proponents and critics on all sides of whatever political spectrum are in no short supply. However, the aim of this article is not to discuss the merits or drawbacks of such curricula and political policies, but rather, to step back and take stock of what history is on a theoretical level, examine the historian’s role in making history, and hopefully clarify what constitutes good and bad history as asserted by some professional historians and academics. To start off, we will define what history is given the context from which we are examining it, then we will clarify what the overall goal of history is and how historians carry out that goal, and finally, having set down those parameters, we can examine what constitutes good and bad history. What can be seen is that good history, as created by historians, adheres to the overall goals of history in that it is well-communicated, makes a point, shows sound connections between historical facts, and is a reflection of the historian’s skill. In contrast, bad history fails to achieve the overall goals of history. Specifically, bad history is poorly communicated, lacks a clear thesis, serves a definitively biased or non-historical ideology, fails to do justice to its content through poor research, and evaluates historical actors or events as static rather than dynamic.
There are many ways to define what history is. History could be physical artifacts, video and audio recordings, people’s memories, the dynamics of change and continuity over time, and even the overall theoretical summation of all events and actions that occurred prior to the present. Broadly speaking, however, according to Michael Stanford (1994), history is categorized as one of two things. The first category is history in reference to an event or the past itself. The second category refers to history as a narrative or account of past events (p. 1 – 2). On a somewhat different note, Norman Cantor and Richard Schneider (1967) categorize history into three distinct, but related schools of thought. First is the narrative school that focuses on the political, intellectual, economic, and cultural accounts of what people have said and done in the past. The second is the biographical school which seeks to explain history through the lens of psychology, along with the motivations and personalities of individuals. The third is the sociological school that examines history for patterns of social changes in relation to the present day. However, despite these three schools of thought and various other definitions, Cantor and Schneider write that the only commonly accepted definition of history is that which the historian creates. That is to say that the historian examines the evidence, makes judgments, establishes causal relationships, and places facts into a pattern of significance (p. 17 – 19). This final definition from Cantor and Schneider falls neatly in line with Stanford’s second definition of history being a narrative. That is something that historians create. Since we have not invented time travel and we cannot go back to personally document and gather direct evidence of past events, our understanding of the past must hinge on the work of historians.
Put another way:
History is a pack of lies about events that never happened told by people who weren’t there.George Santayana
History is indeed little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.Edward Gibbon
It should be noted that the use of the term, “narrative” does not necessarily imply that history needs to be written in a chronological format like a piece of literature with a beginning, middle, and end. Rather, another way to describe it would be as an evidence-based account, created by historians, which establishes connections between people, objects, places, and/or events with respect to the dynamics of change versus continuity. Therefore, with regard to our examination of good and bad history, we will proceed with this definition that history, regardless of the topic, is ultimately a product of the historian.
What is the Aim or Goal of History?
Now that we have defined history as an evidence-based narrative created by a historian, we should now examine what the overall aim of history is. There are many reasons why we should study history, but does history itself have an innate purpose?
While most people tend to simplistically view history as a collection of dates, people, and facts, the reality is that these things must come together to form a coherent narrative that has meaning. Cantor and Schneider (1967) write that it is naive to believe that history can be presented purely as a series of unbiased facts. The view of history as merely a collection of facts lends an inadequate and anecdotal nature to history because the facts alone do not impart any importance or meaning (p. 19). Effectively, history becomes nothing more than idle gossip. Cantor and Schneider (1967) further write that it is intellectual curiosity that drives us to re-evaluate old hypotheses, create new hypotheses, and revise or add to the existing body of knowledge we possess on a topic. For this reason, there is no such thing as a “definitive” history on any subject because our knowledge of the said subject is constantly in flux. Therefore, the purpose of history is to further our understanding, but we should acknowledge that our understanding is based on inferences (p. 29). What this tells us is that history is more than just a random assortment of trivia and that our knowledge of history itself is not static, but dynamic and prone to reinterpretation and change.
If the purpose of history is to extend our knowledge and understanding, then a more specific goal is the analysis and evaluation of the relationships between facts, how they come together into patterns, and how they form a cohesive picture. In the case of a history student or a historian, they accomplish this by creating a secondary source themselves through their own research and work with other source materials. In other words, history should explain to us the meaning of how and why the facts came to be (Cantor & Schneider, 1967, p. 92 – 93). Given that history should explain to us the connections between facts, we can further generalize that the goal of history, as a product created by the historian, is ultimately one of communication. Stanford (1994) opines that communication between two or more people implies seeking out a common property. The question then becomes one of whether or not what is communicated is properly interpreted by the receiver (p. 80 – 82). If history is about the furtherance of knowledge through communication, then there is always a risk of miscommunication. Thus, we can say that the goal of history is ultimately to communicate a narrative created by a historian in a coherent manner. However, this brings us to another question: What obligation does the historian have to properly communicate this narrative and show the relationships between the facts?
What is the Duty of a Historian?
Having defined history and examined what the overall goal of history is as a communication device to further our understanding, we now turn to the duties of the historian in creating history and what obligations they have to ensure that history functions as a form of communication. Cantor and Schneider (1967) write that while every historian approaches the material with their own set of assumptions and biases, we should not dismiss their work as flawed and instead understand that these assumptions and biases are a reflection of the historian’s mind on how they make connections and judgments on historical events. With that in mind, a historian has three obligations to fulfill when creating a work of history. First, the historian is obligated to improve in the maturity of their assumptions and replace prejudices with wisdom. Ultimately, they want to develop a sophisticated understanding of people and society. Second, the historian should seek to increase the amount and variety of their knowledge of the past. Third, the historian needs to apply their assumptions in order to make better judgments, establish relationships, and create an order to history (p. 20 – 21). A further corollary to these three duties is that the historian must communicate the history clearly. Regardless of the format (be it written, audio, or visual), the history created by the historian also needs to be published and available to an audience (p. 148). Essentially, the historian must be constantly striving to improve their craft. It makes sense that the continual practice of finding connections between facts and deriving conclusions from evidence is integral to the process of creating a historical narrative. Furthermore, since the historical narrative is a form of communication, if it is to have any impact on our understanding of history itself, then it must be available for others to see.
Beyond the clear communication of knowledge and the refinement of their craft, Stanford (1994) writes that the historian must recognize that their work will always have an effect on the reader’s beliefs, values, and understanding, no matter how subtle (p. 83). Arguably, it is impossible for the historian to create a history that is completely unbiased in its conception, as well as completely unbiased in how it is consumed by the reader. Nevertheless, the historian should constantly be striving to improve their work so as to create better history with the understanding that history is more than just facts, but clear communication that furthers our knowledge.
What is Good & Bad History?
Our examination of history, thus far, has defined history as a narrative, established the goal of history as a medium to communicate knowledge, and clarified the duties of a historian to make connections between facts and create a history that is clearly understood. With these fundamental concepts and definitions in mind, we now turn to define what good and bad history are. It follows that good history ultimately aligns with those aforementioned definitions and goals, whereas bad history does not.
- A clear and well-written piece of communication with a precise thesis/main point
Since our definition of history and its goals hinges on it being a narrative and a piece of communication, we can surmise from the start that good history accomplishes both of these things. Cantor and Schneider (1967) write that good history, first and foremost, has a precise main point. In other words, it is a thorough development and proof of a thesis or idea. Hence, the historian must be able to write well if they are to produce good and valid history (p. 204 – 205). It does you no good to merely blabber on and on if you have no point to make. Furthermore, no matter how compelling a point you have to make, it does you no good if you cannot properly communicate it.
- A well-reasoned work that demonstrates sound judgements and connections between facts on the part of the historian.
Our definition of history is further predicated on the notion that history does not create itself. Rather, it is the product of historians. In that regard, it is not only up to the historian to create a well-written history that has a main point, but it is also the historian’s duty to create a history that demonstrates their use of sound judgment and shows the inferences between facts. In essence, the historian has created a history that brings order to the chaos of events. Cantor and Schneider (1967) write that historians work to establish connections (i.e. inferences) between facts that show a vast network of causality. Generally speaking, the more inferences historians can draw between facts, the better the history they create (p. 38). More specific to the above idea of clear communication and in relation to the historian’s responsibilities, Cantor and Schneider (1967) write that good history is clear when it comes to using critical terms, is consistent and well-organized in its arguments, and is thorough and accurate when it comes to using sources (p. 210 – 211). Just as history needs to be a clear piece of communication, historians must take measures to ensure that their work is logical, coherent, and evidence-based.
The historian is not creating a work of fiction, and any well-reasoned historical interpretation should support its arguments with evidence. It is important to make a distinction here between evidence, facts, and opinions. Evidence constitutes the primary and secondary sources that the historian works directly with. The evidence itself is arguably independent of the historian since anyone can work with it. It is like raw data. By itself, the evidence does not mean much, but it is up to the historian to make sense of it. From the evidence, the historian exercises their judgment to create facts. Essentially, facts are statements that are commonly accepted as true. It is important to note here that facts are not necessarily accepted as true by everyone. Historians then create inferences through finding and explicating the connections and relationships between facts. Yet, no two historians will derive the exact same inferences between the same set of facts. Hence, why there is not always agreement on the facts themselves. The relationship between facts and inferences is somewhat relative. The validity of inferences depends on the accepted validity of the facts they are based on. Furthermore, the general application of any inferences decreases as the base of facts narrows. Opposite of facts are opinions which are conclusions without any basis in facts or evidence. Opinions, when used haphazardly, can mar any historical writing by introducing personal prejudices or historical cliches. (Cantor & Schneider, 1967, p. 24 – 27). All of this points to the fact that good history is well-supported with verifiable sources. The historian’s writing should detail the connections between facts and the evidence should support the main point of the historical work.
- A mature reflection of the historian’s skill.
In addition to the writing being clear and showing reasonable connections between facts, any good work of history will also provide insight into the historian’s own maturity and wisdom regarding their understanding of the topic. It should be noted that Cantor and Schneider (1967) are writing specifically for an audience of college undergraduates. (I.e. students majoring, or considering majoring, in history.) In that respect, they are expecting their students to make a new contribution to the field. On the other hand, they also note that undergraduate students are likely to produce very derivative works since they do not have access to all of the relevant primary sources. Thus, the conclusion and interpretation that a student comes to will probably not be very original, but it must be a personal reflection of their understanding of the material (p. 170). This is applicable to any kind of history produced, no matter the educational level of the historian. In a previous post, we discussed that historians build upon the work of others in the field. On a related note, it should be kept in mind that there is no such thing as a “true” or “definitive” account of history. Like the hard sciences, our understanding of the discipline is constantly changing and dynamic. A good historical interpretation with a solid thesis will usually be reinterpreted after 20 – 30 years, give or take (Cantor & Schneider, 1967, p. 179). As time advances and our society changes, so do our assumptions and understandings of the past. What was “true” 30 years ago may no longer apply today; regardless of however stodgily the older generation clings to their beliefs and values. That said, we should not automatically disregard the writings of older historians simply on the grounds that what they wrote or held to be true is now unfashionable (Cantor & Schneider, 1967, p. 245). On the contrary, older writings serve as glimpses into the minds of past generations. A discussion of the potential innumerable variations in interpretations was also covered in another previous post. Even if our current values do not align with a bygone era, there is nothing in our definition of history that says good or bad history means we have to agree or disagree with an interpretation. Our agreement or disagreement with an author’s interpretation is irrelevant. Rather, we should reexamine the facts and create new theses and interpretations. What matters in these instances is whether or not history succeeds as a work that communicates its main point, provides strong inferences based around evidence, advances our knowledge of a topic, and shows the historian’s own unique interpretation of the material.
- Is poorly communicated and/or lacks a clear thesis.
If good history is well-communicated and has a clear thesis, then it follows that bad history would lack those things. The reasons for poor communication are many, but they can stem from poor writing, meandering topics, or sloppy research. Simply put, bad history results from the historian not being able to communicate or having nothing notable to say.
- Replaces factual statements with baseless opinions and bias.
Our examination of history thus far asserts that no historian is completely unbiased in their assumptions nor is it possible for there to be a truly definitive history on a topic. Still, a good work of history, as created by a historian, strives to be as objective as possible with respect to presenting the facts as derived from the evidence. The historian’s inferences and opinions are what is up for debate. The danger of crossing the line into bad history is when the latter supplants the former, particularly with regard to the presentation of opinions.
Along with disregarding facts in favor of opinions, historians who commit plagiarism are also guilty of creating bad history. As previously mentioned, historians “stand on the shoulders of giants” and derive their understanding of a topic from the work of others. While historians that produce derivative works are not very original, those that flat-out copy the work of others without proper attribution and citations commit a grievous act of intellectual theft. Even professional historians can be guilty of plagiarizing others’ work. For professionals and students, the punishments can range from mild to severe, and there may even be legal ramifications.
Replacing facts with opinions becomes even more egregious when the reader can no longer distinguish between historical facts and the author’s opinions, or when the reader disregards facts in favor of opinions. In addition, Stanford (1994) opines that whether or not a piece of history is published with the intent to influence readers, it is impossible for the historian to write in a completely neutral fashion because, as previously mentioned, history will have some effect on the reader’s outlook. If the history arouses no emotional response in the reader, then it will not be learned, remembered, or understood. Therefore, the historian will have to find some way of retaining the attention of the reader, either through their writing style, in helping the reader find relevance in the topic, or in writing on a topic that interests the reader (p. 85 – 87). With that in mind, the reader must also take the responsibility to practice metacognition and think critically about what they are reading. In any case, a so-called history that contains more opinions than facts and inferences is highly suspect.
- Is overtly tied to a political, moral, or religious agenda.
In light of our discussion on opinions and biases, some history is so ideologically motivated that it becomes clear that it is meant to steer the reader toward a certain viewpoint. How many times have we all encountered something that more closely resembles an advertising pitch rather than a factual statement? The same can be said for history. If it seems like it is trying to sell a brand to you, then it is probably worth being cautious over. Stanford (1994) writes that history is abused when it is made subservient to any non-historical theory or ideology, whether that be political, religious, philosophical, economic, sociological, etc. (p. 46). This is definitely most blatant in works of propaganda because the overt goal is to influence the consumer, but it can be more covert. Bias on the part of the historian is an obvious factor, but a specific agenda is often higher-reaching and broader in scope. The idea of presenting history through a specific ideological or dogmatic lens is certainly nothing new, but the danger is when the lens is used to exclusively confirm a particular narrative of history, and thus, falls into a fallacy of confirmation bias.
- Derives conclusions from only a partial study of the source(s).
One of the toughest parts of doing historical research is figuring out which sources to use. Oftentimes there is so much information available that the historian cannot possibly be familiar with every single source. However, a historian that fails to adequately understand their chosen sources is also doing history an injustice. Cantor and Schneider (1967) write that it is important for the historian to be familiar with the entire text of a source they are using. This is not to say that the historian needs to memorize the whole text, but in order to come to an accurate evaluation of the source and derive the most benefit for their thesis, the historian must know what it is about. Jumping to conclusions based on only a partial understanding of the text is not only negligent but also intellectually dishonest on the part of the researcher (p. 44 – 45). Similarly, Stanford (1994) writes that bad history neglects the breadth of sources and ignores, or worse, it flat-out suppresses evidence. This is common in governments of all persuasions (p. 46 – 47). The obvious danger in either of these cases lies in presenting a biased account supported with distorted or cherry-picked evidence.
- Views history solely through the lens of modern values and applies moral absolutism.
One of the big debates in historical writing is how we should judge the actions, words, and moral values of historical figures and events. The spectrum of opinions ranges far and wide. Some argue that certain values are universal and transcendent of time and place while others wish to view moralistic judgments as completely independent of history. Even then, others prefer a middle ground and opine that historians have a role to play in critiquing the past, but they should stop short of being the judge. In the case of bad history, our concern is not so much with whether or not we should apply judgment at all, but rather how willing we are to consider our own thinking regarding those judgments. Applying modern values to history can turn a work into bad history when historians assume such judgments are set in stone and have no further need to be reevaluated. Since historical events are based on probabilities and not absolutes, applying unwavering judgments without considering alternatives or historical contexts merely shows close-mindedness.
There are many things historians and readers must keep in mind when applying judgments to history. Cantor and Schneider (1967) write that the reader needs to be aware of the implicit values and opinions present in primary sources. They argue that the historian/reader needs to view the conduct and opinions of historical people with regard to the societal values as were contemporary to those times, not the historian’s/reader’s own values. Upon establishing a foundation of values relative to the society being researched, we can then pass judgment in condoning or condemning them (p. 43 – 44). From another perspective, Conal Furay and Michael Salevouris (2000) write that it is very easy for historians to judge the past from the perspective of their own values and that hindsight oversimplifies problems that would have been far more difficult to anticipate or solve at the time they occurred. The historian does not need to abandon their own values to sympathize with historical ones, but they should make an effort to understand the difference between the two and distance themselves from the former. While there is no clear answer as to whether or not a historian should or should not apply contemporary values as if they are universal to all of humanity, the best advice is simply to be cognizant of the dilemma so as to approach it with knowledge rather than ignorance (p. 65 – 67). At the very least, being able to support one’s argument with evidence lends greater credibility than mere opinions.
In light of judging history, it is true that some practices, people, and organizations are universally reviled in this day and age, but we must still take steps to put things into further historical context. As I previously discussed in my post on interpretation in history, while we consider Adolf Hitler and the Nazis to be the personification of evil, we should remember that they were considered political entities at the time and other nations conducted diplomacy with them in the 1930s. With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy enough for us to say that we should have stopped Hitler or any of the other endless injustices that have been committed throughout history, but that line of thinking ignores other historical realities of those times. While the term “evil” is certainly appropriate to describe these people or events, further explication is warranted since the term itself is rather vague.
Note: I am in no way a Nazi apologist. Rather, I am arguing that judgments should not be based on vague terms. Simply saying something is “good” or “bad” does not tell the reader anything useful.
This illustrates that there is a fine line between historians making reasoned judgments on history with the benefit of hindsight versus crossing the line and assuming that modern values are always interchangeable with older ones. When historical figures and actions are removed from context, then it can be difficult to see the nuances and too easy to apply simplistic judgments. What this really points to is that the historian and the reader must be aware of differences in societal values and cultures, have the metacognition to see through their own use of hindsight, and be flexible enough to reconsider their own judgments on history as they see it through their own lenses.
What Can Be Done to Avoid Bad History?
Unfortunately, there is no hard and fast line that demarcates good and bad history. Much of it is relative, but having defined some of the broader aspects of good and bad history, it becomes clearer that bad history is a product of biases, specific agendas, poor research, and inappropriate logic. On the other hand, good history communicates a clear idea, comes from a thorough research of the sources, demonstrates solid conclusions and connections, and positively reflects the historian’s skill with the material.
Time, changes in values, and the subsequent reevaluation of source materials are not always kind or gentle on historical works. What was once considered a good history can suddenly change to being viewed as a bad history after 20 to 30 years when it is reinterpreted. Since history can be interpreted from virtually any perspective, it is worth remembering that disagreements in interpretations are natural and historians should expect them. If researchers and readers assume that values and interpretations are static and permanent, then they risk falling into the abyss of bad history by being intellectually inflexible and failing to see the dynamics of history.
Cantor, N.F., & Schneider, R.I. (1967). How to Study History. Harlan Davidson.
Furay, C., & Salevouris, M.J. (2000). The Methods and Skills of History: A Practical Guide (2nd ed.). Harland Davidson.
Stanford, M. (1994). A Companion to the Study of History. Blackwell Publishers.