Ivy Roberts has taught undergraduate-level film studies for over 9 years. She has a PhD in Media, Art and Text from Virginia Commonwealth University and a BA in film production from Marlboro College. She also has a certificate in teaching online from UMGC and non-profit marketing and fundraising from UC Davis.
History is Like Time Travel
One of the many reasons I love history is because it makes me feel like I'm traveling through time. Until the day when some inventive scientist figures out a way to actually travel through time, reading historical documents is the closest we can come. In historical texts, we can meet important figures who have long since passed away. They can offer us a way to see the world as they did.
How can we be sure that certain events in the past happened the way people said they did? Today, we have videotape, audio recording, and access to data like GPS and phone records that help us verify the events that happened in the recent past. But when we reach farther back in history, before modern electronic technology, all we have to go on are texts. These texts are written by people with different agendas, so, as historians, we have to keep these factors in mind when evaluating the events and actions represented in historical texts.
Reading historical documents is a lot different from watching a historical documentary or a historical reenactment. Texts seem to present the world as it is, but we need to always remember that they are written from a certain perspective and for a certain purpose. Without knowing it, authors often convey bias, or personal opinion about controversial subjects, in their writing. Understanding a historical text as a picture of the world requires us to also recognize how the picture is taken from the author's particular perspective.
This is especially true for political documents. Take the Declaration of Independence, for example. The founding fathers were reacting against the British government with a strong feeling of persecution, and proclaiming that their new American government would foster freedom. Its cry of freedom sweeps the reader away. As time travelers, we bring our special perspective to the table by recognizing that in declaring all men free, it silences the voices of women and those who were bound by slavery.
Powerful historical figures write their stories from a certain perspective. Our job is to look for the gaps in the stories they relay. There is no such thing as a purely objective account.
If I were to ask you to explain what happened in the Boston Marathon bombing in April of 2013, you would probably do so from your own perspective. You would draw on your personal experience to contextualize the event. This is, after all, how we make sense of the meaning and relevance of current events. Can you imagine a way that anyone could be completely unbiased about an event they experienced first-hand?
What are some strategies you can use to go about reading historical texts?
1. Identify the author - Consider the voice of the author. His or her opinion is integrated with the text and may offer a hint of bias.
- Does this author have an agenda?
- What is the thesis statement?
- How are they supporting the argument?
2. Identify the audience - Remember, the author probably isn't writing to us. We live in the future. Try to imagine who would have been reading such a document and how they might have reacted. Thomas Jefferson was addressing a nation on the brink of independence. He wanted to communicate with others who felt the same way he did about breaking away from the British Empire.
3. Evaluate bias - This is the tricky part where we take off our thinking caps and put on our time traveling caps. Imagine yourself in 1776 on a ship headed to colonial Virginia. You're escaping religious persecution in England. From this perspective, the claims of liberty, equality, and religious freedom call out like a beacon in the storm. But also consider who else is on the ship with you. What would the Declaration's claims mean to them? Perhaps there are enslaved Africans on the ship or indentured servants. By declaring 'all men are created equal,' we time travelers need to recognize the bias in this statement. Reading for bias in historical documents allows us to recognize the voices silenced as those in power claim objectivity and universal truth.
Let's return to the example of the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson is known to have written the document, and 56 members of the Continental Congress agreed to sign it in support of its message. Now that we know who wrote it, we can continue by questioning who they were addressing, what their intended meaning was, and whose voices were excluded.
Certain kinds of historical documents are more credible than others. While a diary conveys the views of an unreliable narrator, a court record confirms facts with far more credibility. Political treatises present the world from a particular point of view. A painting, on the other hand, represents the world through the eyes of an artist.
Using Quantitative Data
One additional strategy you can use to evaluate uncertainty in historical documents is to locate quantitative data that supports the information provided in the text. Certain documents like a census, a birth certificate, an inventory, or a property record account for historical evidence with more certainty. For example, historian Laura Thatcher Ulrich drew on sources such as these to reconstruct the life of an eighteenth-century midwife in rural Maine. Isn't this just like time travel? The only difference is that we have to use our imaginations. By collecting information from the town representatives, Ulrich's example shows us how we can make reasonable assertions about what daily life was like in this cold Northern town during a time when the infant mortality rate was at 30 or 40%.
Historians face the difficult problem of evaluating uncertainty in historical documents because we can't always be sure that when someone wrote down their thoughts they were always telling the whole truth from an objective perspective. This problem can be defined as the author's bias. Identify the author, audience, and historical context in which he or she was writing. By asking questions about who was writing, what their intentions were, who their audience might have been, and what was happening at that time helps us reconstruct a picture of what it might have been like to be there. It also helps us recognize voices being silenced and paint those people back into the picture. Diaries, treatises, and paintings only provide us with a particular perspective on the events of the past. When in doubt of a source's credibility, quantitative data like inventories, census, or court documents can be used to verify statements made in such works.
To unlock this lesson you must be a Study.com Member.
Create your account
Register to view this lesson
Unlock Your Education
See for yourself why 30 million people use Study.com
Become a Study.com member and start learning now.Become a Member
Already a member? Log InBack
Resources created by teachers for teachers
I would definitely recommend Study.com to my colleagues. It’s like a teacher waved a magic wand and did the work for me. I feel like it’s a lifeline.