History Requires Interpretation

Hello friends,

For my Teaching History class I am reading History on Trial, a book that walks through the many culture wars of history.  From the very founding of our nation, history has been a topic that has been fought over in America.  The book keys in on the proposal of the National History Standards, and the reactions to them.

It is funny, as I was reading through this book I found myself perpetually frustrated by comments made on history.  One in particular frustrated me.  Rush Limbaugh, a famous media figure made the quote that “History is what happened. . .” and nothing else (pg 6).  No interpretation.  Just plain facts.  I’d like to apologize to Mr. Limbaugh, because I do not believe that he got the quality history education that he should have received.

You see, history REQUIRES interpretation.  History is looking at facts and figuring out why they matter.  There are many ways that people may look at these facts and try to interpret them.   There is a great quote in the book that I really enjoyed reading that says “History without explanation, without analysis, without pattern is barren chronicle.”(pg9)  I couldn’t agree more with this quote.  As I progress through my own journey of historical understanding, I have discovered the importance of interpretation in history.  While people look at revisionary history with disdain, “Most historians are reformers by nature, and they critique the past in order to improve American society and to protect dearly won gains,” and by revising history, historians are using empirical evidence (pg 15).  The book draws parallels between history and science.  When Gaddis used this comparison in The Landscape of History, I did not like his comparison, but Nash’s I think makes more sense to the historical method.  Nash talks about how when scientists use newly found evidence, they are considered to be doing their natural job and no one blinks an eye.  BUT. . . The second a historian uses evidence to propose a new — and sometimes unpopular — interpretation, they are essentially tarred and feathered.  But history is continually revised.  As Wineburg suggests in Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, textbooks don’t show all the footnotes of debates that take place to figure out which interpretations make the books, and which issues are not entirely agreed upon.

What’s the point?  History is being revised, and that isn’t a bad thing.  More interpretations means more discussion, and a greater discernment and understanding of what actually happened in the past.  History is not just facts, it requires an understanding of those facts to turn them into history.



Christian, Lover of History, Aspiring Teacher

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Posted in Some Simple Rants On History, Teaching History, The Ways Historians Think, Thoughts from Other Historians

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