Learning History

You’ve been lied to.

You weren’t taught how to learn in school. You were taught how to memorize data in order to pass tests.

You were the product of a school system that reinforces white supremacy. That espouses the lies that Columbus discovered America and that racism ended in the 1960s. That the truth of history lies in the words of a textbook where the opinions of its author are treated as gospel.

But there’s a different way to learn our history. It starts reprogramming that way we were taught to learn it. History is often taught alongside English as a social study when it is in face a social science. It has hypothesis and conclusions that are constantly examined, debated and ratified. And somehow when we first learn about history, this process is completely ignored in order to reinforce the doctrines that we want our students to believe.

When reading any work of history always examine the methods the author used to come to their conclusions. Just like the scientific method, there is also a historical method that must be followed in order to label any conclusion as accurate. A historian has to form an argument based on unbiased, historical evidence, use that evidence to argue their case, and that case must hold up under scrutiny or counter-arguments. 

And I will break down how this is done so that we can also do the same when we are reading about history.

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

Know The Sources

When reading books about history, we often skip over the numbers that appear that reference the sources. But taking a quick glance at the sources being referenced is key. There are two main sources that one must reference when writing or talking about history.  Primary sources,  such as texts from the era being talked about or artifacts, are the best references for building evidence for an argument. They records created at the time of the examined event.

An example of this is in American history is the Constitution itself or a letter written by one of the founding fathers. When using primary sources, they must be referenced in “quotes”, and be completely unaltered from the original document (or translation). Just like a courtroom trial, evidence can’t be presented unless it’s the unaltered truth. Anything else is hearsay and thrown out.

Secondary sources are books written by other authors about the same subject. Those authors will still use primary sources and are referenced because their access to that evidence is greater than the readers. And are also a good source for a starting point where we can begin to find those sources.

Statistics and textbooks are most often a 3rd (or tertiary) source. Because numbers in data can be manipulated to support nearly any argument, they are not considered by historians to sole, credible source of evidence. Two people can look at the same set of numbers and come up with different conclusions. Or simply take the part of the numbers that support their own thesis. So this is why the numbers in statistics need to be put in proper context and not be considered as absolute evidence of a historical fact.

Textbooks are falsely taught as primary sources in many schools across the United States. They are summaries based upon the opinion of the author and often offer no real evidence of truth. 

It is the equivalent of a friend’s Facebook rant.

Examine The Intent

Historians have a point of view they are trying to get across. And when reading their work, we have to examine the intent of the author. There are many works that are considered to be history but do not hold up under scrutiny.

Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve is a book often cited by white supremacists or other conservatives for its discussion of intelligence based upon race and economics. A book that blindly takes statistics and uses them to construct a narrative how the government should not be using its resources to help the poor as they will not be able to overcome their biological disadvantage of having a low-IQ to effectively use those resources. And often quoted as an example of why races shouldn’t mix as the act is “weakening” the gene pool.

But when examining the author, we see the real intent. He is neither a historian nor has any advanced study in genetics. He is a political scientist who primarily writes works on policy and therefore has an agenda to promote. Chief among those having a low tax rate for those in an upper income bracket.

Works of history have no preconceived agenda. Like scientists, historians examine evidence based upon true sources. They come to a conclusion based upon this evidence without bending the evidence to suit their purposes. If not, then what is being written can be taken as a form of propaganda.

Photo by Natalia Y on Unsplash

Read Multiple Sources

Because of the way our education system is structured. We are often taught from one source and told it is the unequivocal truth. So as we continue our education, we are seeking knowledge through the mindset of true vs false, rather than proven vs unproven. The method of learning is not education, it is parroting the viewpoints of someone else.

The purveyors of educations – historians, teachers, scientists – all gather their evidence from multiple sources. So why then, are we not taught to do the same? Why are we not given then opportunity to see multiple perspectives and discoveries and come to our own conclusions?

When I started history during my first year of international school, my eyes were opened to this manner of learning. The responsibility of understanding history was placed onto me. I was empowered to understand it and use the established methods for purveying that truth to others.

We all need to take up this practice when learning about our history or any subject in general. There is no one truth, no absolute interpretation of fact. We owe it to ourselves, our peers and the next generation to begin learning this way. Examine multiple sources of a historical event. Consider the author’s perspective and look at where they are gathering their evidence from. Question and examine everything – what are they saying and what is being left out? 

I’m sure there will be two camps among you who are reading this. Those who already know this and those who wonder why they never learned this before.

The challenge that we all face is work together to make this common knowledge rather than a guarded secret accessed only by the fortunate few able to attend the best schools.

The future of our society depends on it.

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