Sunday, April 19, 2009

Thoughts on Revisionism

I spoke to a friend from graduate school recently that said in a job interview she was asked to express her thoughts on historical revisionism. I couldn't help but think how I would have answered this question if it had been asked of me without time to prepare an answer. I'm not sure that I would have done very well, because in my thinking, it is a probably a loaded question.

As I mentioned in a recent post; history is always changing. History in my opinion is provisional; as our experiences does historical interpretation. Things that happen in the present or recent past effect how we see the past and how we explain the past. In that sense I am in favor of historical revisionism. This form of revisionism helps us get at a usable truth of the past; one we can sometimes relate to better than older interpretations. I suppose that is one reason that people can keep cranking out book after book after book on important historical figures and events. For example, someone might view Martin Luther King Jr. one way in one generation, but another generation might see King differently.

The form of revisionism that I think is harmful to history is that type that deliberately seeks to change past interpretations based on biased or faulty information with no other motivation than to try to overthrow previous interpretations. When a historian seeks out primary sources that support their theory and then purposely ignore others that disprove the same theory is where things often go wrong. To me that is simply being untruthful. Similarly, generalizations can be a good thing to help us get a better handle on events that happened so long ago, especially when those generalizations are supported by stacks and stacks of historical evidence. But generalizing based on a limited number of sources or on abnormal or unreliable sources is walking on thin ice historically speaking.

Thank goodness there are credible editors and peer reviewers who usually don't allow such spotty history to go unnoticed or unannounced. Some history critics can be down right vicious in their attacks on unbalanced or unfounded historical interpretation. But in one sense that is a good thing...hopefully their sharp eyes, expertise, and criticism keep "bad" history to a minimum and out of print.

If you are unsure of the historical strength of something you are reading, don't hesitate to look for reviews from respected historians. Look at nonprofessional reviews as well; believe me, there are lots of knowledgeable and discerning nonacademic historians out there with things to say as well. Because, after all nothing is much worse than spending time on a book that his full of holes...historically speaking again, of course.

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