At the end of their sophomore year, Gutenberg students must take an oral, comprehensive exam on Western Civilization as part of their “two-year” exams. Of all the two-year exams, the Western Civ exam changes the most in its content from student to student (although the format is the same for everyone) because it is designed to find the scope of each student’s understanding of history. Each student sits down with a panel of tutors who take turns asking the student questions. Sometimes these questions are easy for the student to answer; sometimes they are designed to show the student his or her weaknesses.
At the end of my Western Civ exam, for example, one tutor told me that I was particularly weak at understanding history. He was right: while I had felt confident when talking about philosophers and their thoughts, I wasn’t sure how to connect the situations and events of the past with each other. I took it as a clear indication of what I needed to work on. But in the decade since I graduated, I have realized that learning history isn’t exactly the same sort of work as understanding philosophers, and I’d like to share some of what I have learned in the hope that it will help you further your own study of history.
The simplest way I can explain the realization I have had in my post-Gutenberg years is that I did not understand how I related to history. For quite a while after I graduated, I held what I think is a very common assumption in our culture about how history works: I believed that the way to be sure you were understanding history accurately was to read historians who focused on “just the facts.” I believed there were “honest” historians, who were willing to look at “all the facts,” and “dishonest” historians, who were not willing to do so. Unfortunately, the study of history is more complicated than this picture assumes, and trying to study under these false premises led to misunderstandings I had to unlearn. Since these are separate issues, I will start by explaining why the study of history is more complicated than looking at “just the facts,” and then I will discuss some common problems not understanding that complication creates.
How Studying History Is Complicated
It’s important to understand that though I love books and think my own continued education will always be a part of my life, I am not a specialist. Some Gutenberg graduates have gone on to get doctorate degrees in various fields related to the sorts of things they learned at Gutenberg (philosophy, literature, history, etc.). I am not speaking for those people. Instead, I am what I will call a “generalist lay scholar.” I think most Gutenberg students who don’t go on to higher degrees end up being “generalist lay scholars.” That doesn’t mean they don’t pursue more specialized interests; it just means that what they study is bound by the limitations of being a lay person. In many cases, this means they don’t have privileges at research libraries or special collections, and they can’t afford to have as comprehensive a library of scholarly texts as specialists who are afforded those resources by their institutions. They might subscribe to a scholarly publication or two, but not all of them. They might shell out $60 for a recent monograph by a university press, maybe quite often, but they can’t afford to buy everything of note in a particular field. Being a “generalist lay scholar” means, particularly for history, that what I have access to is more limited than studying philosophy or literature.
If I want to study Polanyi’s view of science or the Apostle Paul’s teaching in 1 Timothy, all I have to do is take the relevant book off the shelf, read it, and apply my own interpretive abilities to the project of understanding the author. If I want to know about daily life in ancient Rome, on the other hand, I’m dependent on the work of other people. Probably the most informative thing in my personal library at the moment is my second-grade son’s book on ancient Rome. That book traces its claims to some mixture of popularly received knowledge and, hopefully, the work of professional historians. It may be reliable, or it may not be.
Here’s what I want to emphasize: I am not the one interacting with the pottery shards, bits of cloth, and the ancient Roman equivalent of tax returns from which we derive the picture of how ancient Romans lived their daily lives. I am beholden to the work of professional historians and researchers who have had to make judgments about what the artifacts of a given time period meant. And, in general, I am even a further layer removed from making these judgments because I am often not hearing from the professional historians themselves but rather from lay historians, popular historians, or people who write textbooks using the researchers’ work. These second-layer interpreters take the professionals’ work and make it available to a more popular audience. Over time, a consensus view of “the facts” is built up by all of these different layers of judgment.
If I read Polanyi or Paul, I have to make judgments as I’m interpreting what they are saying. When I read history writing, on the other hand, there is a second level of interpretation between me and the historical events. Since the information I receive about history is second- or third-hand, I have to do the further work of assessing whether the interpretation that led to the current work I’m reading is reasonable. As a generalist lay scholar, I don’t have access to the evidence from the past (those pottery shards and tax returns), so I have to rely on my ability to assess how trustworthy the interpreters (if possible, including the professional historians) are.
I want to pause for a moment to acknowledge that at some level I have to trust somebody somewhere. Sometimes generalist scholars who reject consensus views about the subjects they have studied in depth will say silly things about the untrustworthiness of specialist institutions in general. This could seem plausible because they have read the work of specialists and sometimes those specialists are wrong, and sometimes those generalist scholars genuinely understand enough about the topic to tell that those specialists are wrong. Specialist institutions have a lot of financial and political resources that are not available to the generalist, and I assume concentrating those resources means there are fewer specialists in general. Furthermore, because those financial and political resources are desirable for other reasons than their ability to help specialists further human knowledge, they can have a corrupting influence on the people who end up in specialist positions. But while it can be tempting to say that specialization should be abolished so that generalism can thrive, that sentiment is self-defeating. Just because specialist institutions are corruptible doesn’t mean every specialist institution is corrupted. It does mean that as a generalist reliant on those specialist institutions, I need to be discerning about who can be trusted.
Problems that Can Arise
The layers of interpretation and the distance between us and historical events make the work of understanding history very complex. If I fail to see that but proceed with the belief that understanding history can be simple, then I can unwittingly get into trouble. For example, if I operate under the belief that “honest historians” are the ones willing to look at “all the facts,” then I may become susceptible to a form of spurious history writing that is focused on identity rather than truth. If I am not aware that I am trusting someone’s interpretation of the facts, then I will believe that “the facts” are what is really the “consensus” of that second level of interpretation—which may be reliable or not. One of the ironies of the generalist who doesn’t like specialist institutions is that he will often trust a second level of interpretation more readily than he will trust the people who have the resources to actually study evidence from the past. As we’ve seen, those specialists are corruptible (though not necessarily corrupted), but the responsible generalist ought to practice discernment of the second level of interpretation as well as the first.
When I referred above to “a form of spurious history writing that is focused on identity rather than truth,” I mean that the history is focused on identifying the author—and probably the author’s readers—with an idealized past (and often with an idealized group from that past). The flavor of “identitarian” history I was susceptible to I will call “Manichean” history, which is largely an optimistic identification of the historian’s audience with the “good guys”—as opposed to the “bad guys”—of the past. Another flavor of “identitarian” history I have read plenty of—but have never been as impressed by—is what I will call “cynical” history. This flavor of history wants to condemn most events and persons of history because they do not live up to a set of standards that the historian and his audience share.
The “Manichean” historian is interested in identifying himself and his audience with the “good guys” of the past—maybe Socrates and Plato as paragons of the wisdom of Greek antiquity, heroic Romans like Marcus Aurelius, or perhaps the Founding Fathers of the United States. What is important to the Manichean is that these figures of the past realized some sort of ideal that typifies how things should be now but aren’t. The Manichean historian and his audience are cast as the inheritors and re-establishers of a lost historical legacy. The trouble is this: “the ideal” that this historical legacy is supposed to represent is one already embraced by the historian and his audience—but not necessarily by the historical figure.
The “cynical” historian, on the other hand, wants to show that no one has ever lived up to the cynic’s moral standards. Surprisingly, this actually makes cynical history just a more concentrated form of a Manichean history. To read a cynical history is to read about almost nothing but the shortcomings, vices, and sins of every group. Implicit in this sort of history, however, is the cynic’s view that he is beyond the petty squabbles of all these different groups. A cynic still believes in “good guys,” but he believes that these good guys can only offer judgment in cynical histories. Cynical scholarship appeals to those wanting moral superiority.
I am sure that there are other kinds of identitarian histories, but the Manichean and the cynical are the most common I have observed. From these two, we can see how the study of history can become mired in ideological grievance, further complicating the study of history. If I believe—based on “just the facts”—that those in my group are the inheritors of the legacy of the good guys of the past and then someone else believes—also purportedly based on “just the facts”—that everyone (including my group and my “good guys”)—is rotten, then there will be trouble forming a consensus about what “the facts” are at this remove from history. Since the identitarian historians and their readers are ultimately interested in preserving their supposed inherited identity or their own sense of moral superiority, they will not refer their issues to further investigation by specialists in a position to look at the evidence. As such, if consensus will be formed, it will be formed factionally, so that there are now two sets of “facts” that are, in fact, two different ways of doing secondary interpretation.
If I am going to be a student of history who values the truth rather than a particular ideology, I have to become familiar enough with these sorts of disputes so that I can at least understand where the secondary interpreters I am reading are coming from. If I am aware that when I read a work of popular history or a textbook, I am not just “reading the facts,” then I am in a much better position to be discerning about what the truth of the matter is.
In the end, deciding what history means is part of the Great Conversation, and if I have the tools to enter into that wonderful dialogue in general, then I have the tools to do it in the little aside called “History.” I just need to listen patiently. There’s still a lot I don’t know to follow all the ins and outs of the Conversation, but realizing these obstacles and seeking to approach my study with humility, I hope I have grown since my sophomore exam all those years ago. If you’re at all interested in the “history” corner of the Conversation, I hope what I’ve said here will help you as you’re listening, too.
 If the work is translated from another language, I might look up the tricky bits of the text in the original language if I know it, or I might look at a few translations (where available) if I don’t. As a generalist, I do have to know enough about the books I read in translation to know when there’s a slant to a translation I’m using, but I am reliant on someone else interpreting the work for me. As we shall see, this is not all that different from what I do when I study history.
 On the one hand, this may be just as well for the corruptible specialist, since if he were consulted he might either already have sympathy for one side of the argument or decide to profit by becoming mercenary. On the other hand, since the consensus is not dealing with the same issues that an honest specialist is dealing with, it may not be worth the specialist’s time to address the argument, especially considering how intransigent the parties might be. Remarkably, however, sometimes honest specialists will try to practice more popular history to educate everyone involved. They do care about truth, after all.
This article first appeared in the Winter 2023 issue of Colloquy, Gutenberg College’s free quarterly newsletter. Subscribe here.