Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Some Guidelines for studying History

Herodotus: Invented History
For those of you who are interested in history but have never studied it, the subject might appear a little daunting. But it’s easy to get into and you won’t go too far wrong with your ideas if you follow a few simple rules. These rules are completely authoritative. I should know because I just made them up.

Rule One: Things are never simple.

Firstly, just remember that history is fairly complicated. This is a good thing because it means that there is always more to learn and you will never get bored. As a general rule, when someone tells you a neat historical fact such as “Hitler caused WWII” just remember that, with a little digging, you will find out more. Sometimes you will find that the neat fact is simply wrong but more usually you find that the fact is only partially correct and with a little effort you can give flesh out a fuller picture of what happened. Think of the complexity of the world we live in and how every event has different causes and then consider that times past were no different. Treat history with the respect it deserves and if there is material available for study don’t settle for the first answer given.

Rule Two: Know Your Biases

Thucydides: A Better Historian than Herodotus
When it comes to history, as with everything else, you are biased! Don’t worry too much about it, everyone is! But you can save yourself a lot of heartache if you sit down and go through your ideas. What do you believe about religious matters? What are your political opinions? What country do you come from? Then when you look at a topic from history, take a bit of time and see if your beliefs have any relevance to the debate? There is a danger that your beliefs may cause you to view the subject in a non-neutral way. Think of a judge asked to judge a case. If it turns out that the judge is related to the accused the judge will be asked to let someone else judge for fear that they may not be neutral. For topics that are near and dear to you, there is the possibility that you may not be neutral in judging them so treat them with caution. Don’t avoid them necessarily, just, know your biases and tread carefully.

Rule Three: Think of it as a Story

History is the simplest of all subjects to learn. I’m biased because I like history but hey. I find it the simplest to learn because you can treat it like a story. If you just learn a string of dates “Battle of Hastings happened 1066 AD” etc. then you will find it hard to remember. But think of your friends and family and try and piece together what they have been up to over the last few years. Now you could try and learn a list of dates, marking off what a particular person did on a particular day. If you can do that and remember it I salute you! But if you can’t you might be better to try and think of one person and think in terms of stories. Stories are a great way to remember the tale. Even if you forget the dates you will remember the overall sequence of events and that’s half the battle. As a general rule, computers are very good with tables and lists of numbers. Humans generally are not, but we are quite decent with stories.

Rule Four: Learn a few dates

Sima Qian: First Chinese Historian
Ok, Rule Three was a little tough on dates. I have nothing against dates, I merely think that to try and learn huge lists of them is a bad idea. But to make your stories work you need to have a few dates. Right, imagine that you have a fair idea of some of the main stories of the French Revolution. To make it fit together and to give the story a place in the timeline it would help to know that it started in 1789. You don’t need to know every date, but if you don’t learn at least one you’ll make errors when you try and fit the story into other stories. Plus, if you get the dates really, really wrong, then you run the risk of making yourself look silly if you tell the story at a party or reference it in a college essay or something. So, moral of the story, learn just enough dates to hang the framework of the story on.

Rule Five: Know Your Sources

Edward Gibbon: Famous Historian
This is a little more in-depth so I’ll explain it with an analogy. Imagine five or six of your friends go on holidays without you (the wasters) and they have an interesting time. Imagine that you talk to them about it afterwards. If you talk to one of them you’ll probably get a good idea of what happened, but to really get the gist of what went on, wouldn’t it be best to talk to all of them? Everyone will have their own perspective so to get the best picture you need to understand as many perspectives as you can. Just numbers aren’t enough. Supposing you hear a story from five of your friends about some event but it turns out that none of them saw it; that in fact they all heard it second-hand from another person. This doesn’t count as five “sources”. It is five second-hand retellings of a single source. Another thing to watch for is time. The best time to hear your friends talk about the holiday is shortly after they have returned. If you wait a couple of years, memories may have faded. One last thing to watch for is bias. If one of your friends is as ginger as myself they may have disliked the holiday to the Canaries because they got horribly sunburnt. They may have had a horrible time and tell you that the holiday was a disaster. They are telling the truth from their own perspective but their experience may not have been shared by the others.

            Ok, so the “holiday” is a historical event. Your sources of information are books, carvings, newspaper articles etc. To get the best picture of the event you need to find as many sources as possibly, make sure that they aren’t simply copying each other and give priority to those sources that are fairly close in time to the event that they are describing while keeping an eye out for the biases of those who wrote it.

Rule Six: Know a little theory

Lastly, there are theories of history that historians have come up with over the years. These are not explanations of particular events but grand frameworks of ideas that they use to try and understand all of history. Some are better than others but if you read one of their works and don’t realise that there is a grand overall theme (that they may try and force the data to fit) you may be misled by them. You don’t always see it but it happens often enough that it’s worth spending an hour or so reading up on it just so you won’t be caught out next time you watch the History Channel. There is a brief list of theories here.

That’s it! You’re now fully qualified to tinker about and read some history. If you have anything you feel I’ve missed or said wrong please leave a comment below.