Monday, February 10, 2014

On "The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past"

This is my fourth and final posting on The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past by John Lewis Gaddis.

The final chapter of the book suggests that a historian will produce a historical narrative that must be considered as a representation of reality, and which must not be confused with reality itself. He uses the metaphor of a map, and like a map a history represents but is not reality. Moreover, as there can be many different maps describing an area, each with a different purpose or different scale, so too there can be many histories dealing with the same or related aspects of reality.

The people who lived through events, and even those who participated and influenced those events, also have representations of reality in their memories. Historians mine those memories and utilize them while they are still able to interview the participants, but recognize that memories are not the reality of that which is recalled. Moreover, when events disappear from living memory, the histories come to be the best available representation of the reality, taking on a kind of reality themselves.

The Social Construction of the Representation of History

Gaddis does not discuss the social construction of knowledge. He does recognize that a specific historical narrative will be subject to the review and critique of the author's peers, and that the historian's goal is to contribute to a consensus among historians about some aspect of the past. (I would say that a good historical narrative might well inspire others to further research and documentation, advancing the consensus.)

Professional historians form a community which establishes the rules for good historical narratives, conducts peer review, holds meetings, publishes journals, disciplines its members, rewards is successful members, and trains new members who may join the community. Like the staff of the ancient Library of Alexandria, they produce new texts, while filing and cataloging existing texts/ The body of their research provides a representation, a map if you will, of the past -- detailed and in depth for some times, places, issues and scales yet sketchy and shallow in others. This representation of the past is the social construction of the community of professional historians.

There are other groups who also socially construct and share stories of the past. One of my favorite such groups are those who, while not card carrying professional historians themselves, mine the historical literature and produce high quality popular histories for general audiences. Many of the best of these are professional journalists, who have mastered the art of writing narrative for a general audience.

As some believe in creationism rather than evolution, there are other communities that create alternative (less accurate) stories about history. These groups may be libertarian, conservative, liberal or progressive. The view of southern history may be very different among the blacks and whites, or people from the north, south or west.

One group deserves special attention, and that is the authors, editors and publishers of K-12 school history books, and the people who influence the selection of books actually to be used in the school systems. All too often these folk have constructed a version of history that differs from that accepted by the community of professional historians, not only by simplifying the narratives to make them more intelligible for children, but also adjusting their content to fit a mythology that they wish the children to believe.

Reality Evolves

Historians may write about the past, but they live in the present; they and their children can expect to live in the future. The reality of the present is different than that of the past, and will be different than that of the future.

Gaddis sees one of the duties of historians as recognizing in the present and the future, aspects that could be made better. Where they do recognize such an instant, they may identify times and places in history where alternatives existed.

Gaddis is not explicit, but let me suggest some examples. Today there are many examples of environmental degradation, from climate change, to desertification, air and water pollution, deforestation and loss of biodiversity. There are also many examples of history in which people seemed to live in greater harmony with their environment, and examples of institutions for common property management that seem better to avoid the "tragedy of the commons". Jared Diamond,  in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, also provides some warning examples from history in which societies failed to adequately protect their environment, and collapsed as a consequence.

Historians can perhaps suggest ways that societies in the past have ended bloodshed based on religious differences that could be useful in several places today where such conflict continues. They might suggest examples of the way that women's rights have been improved to countries seeking also to improve women's rights. They might suggest models from the past in which societies have reduced racism for those current nations seeking better ways for the races to live together in greater harmony.

This is a nice, short book. I found it thought provoking.

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