Learning Unit #01 Lecture: Why study history? “What is History?”
Part One:Defining History & Explaining What Historians Do 2
What is history?• NOT the study of “the past” BUT the study of surviving evidence and sources about the past; the account of change over time.• Part social science, BUT also like the humanities, BECAUSE:• It’s all about interpretation & narrative (i.e., storytelling).• It’s also about ‘facts,’ BUT facts are made of words, and words can be manipulated, distorted, and shaped to their author’s purpose.
What do historians do? Analyze & interpret evidence: Primary Sources – the actual records that have survived from the past, including all traces left by humans—their ideas, social customs, institutions, languages, literatures, material products, & even their physical remains. Primary sources always date from the time period being studied & are frequently eyewitness accounts left by persons directly involved in the historical event.
Secondary Sources -- Interpretations of primary sources by historians having an open-ended conversation with each other. Our textbook contains a few primary sources (in the “Individual Voices” sections that conclude each chapter), but most of it is a secondarysource written by a committee of historians.
Objectivity: The Impossible Ideal? In the “hard sciences,” such as chemistry & physics, the results of lab experiments can be independently confirmed & duplicated again & again. These scientists have an easier task maintaining an impartial, unbiased, objective attitude about their work b/c in their areas of study outcomes can be reliably predicted. BUT social scientists (psychologists, anthropologists, historians, etc.) study human behavior, which often seems irrational & is affected bymany random variables. History is not an exact science. Moreover, socialscientists themselves are humans trying to make sense of human behavior &frequently their own societies. Everyone carries around “intellectual baggage”--i.e., persistent attachments to unexamined beliefs/assumptions that impede ourseeing things clearly--but the historian must judge the past on its own terms &the merits of the evidence, leaving his/her own biases out of it.
It is not the socialscientist’s job tobe a missionary ora patriot but tostudy the subjecton its terms,following theevidence whereverit leads. Ethnocentrism--an emotional attitude that regards one’s own group or culture as superior & is contemptuous of other groups & cultures is certainly one obstacle to objectivity.
Presentism— faulty way ofinterpreting history that attempts to apply present-day ideas, standards,attitudes, & moralsto historical figures Lewis Carroll took photos & events. of little girls in the 1800s, Presentism can but does that mean he was be a pitfall for all a closet pedophile? students of (See “LU1 Visual Sources Quiz,” history. Questions 1&2.)
Part Two: Guiding Principles of SocialSciences in the late 20th-early 21st centuries 9
1. Human Minds are “Blank Slates” The 17th-century English philosopher John Locke compared the human mind to a sheet of “white paper” (others have since termed it a “blank slate”) upon which EXPERIENCES are then inscribed. We are not born with pre-existing, innate ideas about anything. Our experiences, which begin in the womb, add up to form each of our individual personalities/ identities. 10
2. Our Worldviews are “Socially Constructed” Much of what we Many social assume to be “natural” scientists explain not & refer to as “universal just all human customs & human nature” is social actually invented or arrangements as the product “socially constructed.” ofYou are who you are b/c socialization, but also the of the surrounding emotions culture into which you people are permitted to were socialized as a express; our child. Change the ideas about race, kinship, experiences & the gender, illness & even nature. person can change.
3. Cultures are Not Superior orInferior to Each Other, Just Different What is culture? In the sense that social scientists use the term, culture means all patterns of human behavior & all products of human work & thought (arts, beliefs, institutions, etc.) that are spread by language & other forms of social expression.Differences among human “races” & ethnic groups come not fromtheir physical biology but from their cultures. All groups of humansare endowed with the same basic mental abilities & possess equalpotential. Cultural relativism is the idea that because all culturesresult from particular historical circumstances, each is equally validin the context of its respective society, time, & place. 12
THEREFORE: According to Feral ChildSocial Scientists, “NURTURE” (Environmental Determinism) Trumps “NATURE” (Biological Determinism). 13
HOWEVER:Environmental determinismcannot explain everything abouthuman behavior. What accountsfor the remarkable similarities inthe life experiences of twins,particularly those separated-at-birth & reared far apart indifferent settings? What explainshuman sexual orientation? Ifsome underlying universalhuman nature does not exist,why do ALL societies share somany commonalities, such asreligion, greed, war, & prescribedgender roles? Biology offersimportant insights to thesequestions. So, whileenvironment & experiencewould still be the mostimportant determinants,biology should not be ignored. 14
1. How & What We Remember MattersA society’s identity is the product of the myriadindividuals, forces, & events that constitute itspast. History, the study of the past, is society’s collective memory. Without that collective memory, society would be as rootless & adrift as an individual with amnesia. Of the many legitimate reasons for studying history, this is one of the most compelling. Individually &collectively what we are is the product of what we have been. In the words of philosopher George Santayana, “A country without a memory is a country of madmen.”
2. To Excite & Inflame Citizens to Action Large-scale social movements always begin with small groups of informed & engaged citizen- activists. In a democracy, uninformed, non- voting citizens have essentially abandoned their civic responsibility to the community. We might not think change was possible if we did not know from history how others have stopped injustices in the past. 17
3. Self-Improvement through Cultural LiteracyThere are some things a college-educated person simply ought to know. Knowledge of factoids & trivia, however, is less important than becoming familiar with how the world works (& has worked) & how things came to be the way they are.
People engaged with the macro-world, who have some wider perspective, experience, & public knowledge interest me.People too absorbed withtheir micro-world &limited personalexperiences bore me.
4.Some habits/skills that historians value & soshould you. ALWAYS: • distrust information that cannot be independently verified; • remain skeptical; don’t attach yourself to an idea simply because you read it on the Internet or heard it from someone you know; • remember that the simplest explanation (i.e., the one that makes the fewest new assumptions) is the best explanation. 20
American ExceptionalismThe belief that the USA has a special, unique history & destiny that sets it apart from other nations & exempts it from the cycles of history & the patterns of development & decline experienced by other countries; history somehow does not apply to the USA.
History is like a gameof dice (“shooting craps”).
Maybe the dice were not “loaded” at the beginning of the game, but by this late stage, they have become so. Future outcomes can only arise from past outcomes; history is full of winners & losers. America was once thought of as, “The best poor man’s country in the world,” because of the opportunities available here for ordinary people. In the 21stcentury, however, statistics show that for the first time in U.S. history, it can besaid that greater upward social mobility existed for Americans in the past than in the present. Simply working hard, even with a college degree, no longer guarantees you will attain a high living standard.
So, how should we assess the United States & the varied experiences of diverse Americans? Historian Seymour Martin Lipset offers a reasonable answer: “...It is impossible to understand a country without seeing how it varies from others. Those who know only one country know no country.”Our perspective, therefore, should be a comparative one:How has the USA’s experience been similar to or different from other economically developed countries? 25
FOR EXAMPLE: The USA is not the first country to invade Iraq & Afghanistan& get bogged down in SouthwestAsia/the Middle East. Who might you guess authored the quotations on the next slide?
“We come here [to Iraq] “It is not for the not as conquerors, but as benefit of the liberators to free you from people of [Iraq] generations of tyranny.” that it should be governed so as to enable them to develop this “The land which hasviolence in Baghdad been withered can be and shriveledblamed on up by local oppression. political What would agitation happen if we whichoriginated withdrew? We outside will not Iraq....” abandon Iraq to anarchy and “I imagine that the view held by many people about confusion.” [Iraq] is that the local inhabitants will welcome us because we have saved them…, and that the country only needs developing to repay a large expenditure of [our nation’s] lives and money....”
If you named anyone from President GeorgeW. Bush’s Administration, you were incorrect. All those quotations were spoken by British political & military leaders--in the 1920s! When the USA invaded Iraq in 2003, American political leaders had the attitude that, quote, Were an empire now, & when we act, we create our own reality”--as if Iraq’s history did not apply to the USA. & Beyond
The idea of Americanexceptionalism cuts both ways.•Positives: -- For almost a century, the United States was the only successful republic in the world. -- In the U.S. political system, pluralism & egalitarianism have become enshrined as core ideals.
American Exceptionalism PLURALISM EGALITARIANISMA framework of The moral doctrineinteraction in which which holds thatgroups show equality ought to prevailsufficient respect & throughout society. Onetolerance of each can best understandother, that they various types offruitfully coexist & egalitarianism by askinginteract without "Who is supposed to beconflict orassimilation. equal?" & "In what respect are they supposed to be equal?"
Other ‘Exceptional’ Traits of USA• Most sectarian & religious country in the West.• Most ‘educated’ (at some formal level) population in the world (in terms of %).
‘Exceptional’ Negative Traits• History/legacy of racialized slavery in America. – The USA’s national wound;• Ecology. – The myth of a ‘people of plenty’; Americans today make up 3% of the world’s population but consume 25% of the world’s resources;• Isolation – The lack of cross-cultural interest breeds a hyper-ethnocentrism among Americans;• Highest crime rate – most people in prison (per capita) – 75% of all serial killers have been Americans;• Lowest voter turnout among democratic countries;• Worst health care coverage among the world’s industrialized democracies.