Studying history well enables people and cultures to tell better stories, and to change in ways worth changing. This is difficult on a number of levels.
In order to learn things worth knowing about the past, we have to ask good questions, and we have to make an effort to find the real answers to those questions.
The basic premise of historical scholarship is that in order to know what happened in the past, you have to check. You may not find what you expect, and you may not like what you find. But what you find will be worth knowing, and it will inform your understanding of the present.
In historical research, anything can be questioned, and any question may well have an unexpected answer. In order to make a claim about the past within the rules of history, you have to do several things:
- Explain what your claim is.
- Reference evidence that supports your claim.
- (Ex: documents that have survived from the period, artifacts, diaries, graves, laws, TV clips, junk mail, angry letters, hats, etc)
- Make an argument about why your evidence supports your claim.
- Reference other arguments, and explain why yours is a better explanation of the evidence
- Say, many historians argue that nobles in the year 500 in Hypothetical Country commonly kept implausible hounds.
- Their evidence for this is that many nobles kept diaries that reference implausible hounds in great detail.
- Their diaries also reference business transactions that we have independent evidence occurred.
- You don’t think implausible hounds exist.
- You might argue that: we have lots of laws from that period, including livestock laws. None of them reference implausible hounds.
- We have found discarded animal bones for every animal referenced in the attested livestock laws. No one has ever made a credible claim to have uncovered the skeleton of an implausible hound.
- These diaries also contain accounts of the authors’ encounters with dragons, and no one cites this as evidence that dragons actually existed.
People may be convinced by your argument, or they may not be. People may make counterarguments. They may argue in favor of positions that no one has ever taken seriously before.
For instance, people who are convinced that implausible hounds existed may start arguing that dragons also existed, making arguments along the lines that:
- The diarists describe their own implausible hounds using very similar language to their horses and other domestic animals.
- They describe dragons in very similar terms to lions and other dangerous wildlife.
- We know from many sources that they raised horses and that lions posed a threat to people and livestock.
- The diaries also describe unicorns and flying hippopotamuses, and they use very different language to do so. No one claims to have personally encountered or raised one of these animals, it’s always a friend-of-a-friend or an elderly relative’s parent.
- If dragons and implausible hounds were mythical, they would be described the same way as other mythical creatures, but they’re described in the same way as other real animals.
- Many buildings were destroyed as a result of the unprecedented forest fires of 1000, including the courthouses that held most of the agricultural legal records.
- Given that we know so many records were destroyed, there’s no reason to assume that existing legal documents described all domesticated animals and all dangerous predators.
- It’s generally agreed that implausible hounds were no longer kept after around the year 850, so it’s unsurprisingly that no new implausible hound laws were passed after the fires of 1000.
- The dragon problem could also have resolved by then. We know that increased human population, agriculture, and improved weapons caused the extinction of several large predators.
As more investigation is done, researchers may turn up evidence that calls more things into question, for instance:
- People who argue seriously that dragons existed search archives closely for dragon-related materials — and find some laws restricting dragon-hunting.
- Or petitions to the king asserting that the local lord was neglecting his duty to provide adequate dragon-proof roofs.
- A dig at a previously unexplored abandoned farm uncovers an unfamiliar animal skull that may be from an implausible hound.
- Or a discarded merchants’ log listing dragon scale inventories and sales.
- These documents and artifacts may be found to be a fraud, they may be found to be genuine, or there may be legitimate arguments to be made in both directions.
- Or: Newly uncovered diagrams in a clearly authentic diary may have drawings of the animals called “implausible hounds”.
- The drawings look like horses and not canines, and look similar to drawings explicitly labeled as horses.
- Many historians start arguing that “implausible hound” is how people referred to particularly good-tempered horses.
- Or: There may be evidence discovered that dogs were unknown in Hypothetical Country until 1200.
- (For instance, there may be records of foreign merchants importing hunting dogs in 1200, sparking a decades-long contentious theological and legal controversy about whether it was blasphemous to domesticate a predator.)
If people care enough to investigate the issue of implausible hounds, dragons, and life in Hypothetical Country, there’s probably a reason they care about it personally. That means that what they uncover may have implications that they don’t like, or have trouble assimilating into their worldview constructively.
For instance, implausible hounds, and the story of their past, may be greatly culturally important, maybe with this kind of story:
- Implausible hounds allowed the nobles to oppress everyone else.
- They were vicious attack dogs, and no other people were permitted to own dogs.
- Eventually, the common people courageously disobeyed these laws. They started raising their own dogs, for protection and companionship rather than attack and oppression.
- The nobles tried to crack down on the peasants and their dogs, but failed because of the fundamental truth that a man and his dog are not easily separated. (And that these days, we understand the importance of including women in dog culture.).
- Resistance aided by dogs showed us that it is possible to rebel and win if we stick together, and led to the greater democratization of society.
- This story is regularly referenced by preachers, politicians, teachers, writers, and just about everyone else.
- In this context, uncovering evidence that implausible hounds may not have existed or may not have been dogs may feel deeply threatening.
- People who make this argument may be seen as unpatriotic or immoral.
- But even if implausible hounds didn’t exist, the country does.
- And it has a real past, and some of what it believes about itself is true.
- It can become more true, as it incorporates better understandings of what descriptions of implausible hounds meant
- And where the cultural importance of dogs came from
- And what role that played in democracy.
- There are probably important truths in the stories about dogs and democracy, even if parts of them aren’t true
- Learning what really happened doesn’t have to break the stories, but it does have to change them.
- This doesn’t happen overnight, and can be difficult and uncomfortable.
More generally speaking: Historical evidence with unexpected implications can be threatening to your identity, values, or understanding of your culture. Most cultures have deeply held cultural believes about the past. Often, the best available evidence contradicts these beliefs. It can be very difficult to engage with both your culture and your understanding of the evidence at the same time. It’s also possible, and important.
Studying history involves emotional skills as much as it involves academic skills. One of the skills you need to do history well is to learn how to care more about understanding what really did happen than you do about believing the stories your culture has taught you. You don’t have to reject your culture to do take historical evidence seriously, and you don’t have to stand alone. You can learn these truths, as a member of your culture and tradition, and incorporate what you learn into your cultural self-understanding. This involves learning to construct a new kind of identity that can adapt to accommodate changes in your understanding of the past.
This is hard, but it gets easier. And it’s absolutely worth it.
The real past is much more complex and amazing than the imagined past. Learning about what really happened and how we got here can give us a much deeper understanding of who we really are. Seeing nuance in the past allows us to face complexity in the present. When we seek the truth about the past and take what we find seriously, it enables us to build a better future.