Theodore Roosevelt

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Is History Science Or Literature?

Published October 3, 2011 by glaumland

This is from a paper I wrote for my Master’s class last spring: Trade & Agricultural Health. It was an excellent class – not only did I learn a lot, I also had the opportunity to put my thoughts on paper. So now I thought I would put them here…

Is History Science Or Literature?

“With the historian it is an article of faith that knowledge of the past is a key to understanding the present.”

 Kenneth Stampp, Alexander F. and May T. Morrison Professor of History Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley (1946–1983) and author.

There has been a debate for centuries among scholars as to whether history is science or literature. There have been historians who apply scientific method to events; in the laboratory of human existence they gather their data from chronology, geography and antiquities. They can point to the fact that certain events look to have a cause and effect relationship. These scientific historians tend to see history in cycles, and will often propose that without an understanding of history, mankind is doomed to repeat past mistakes. Unfortunately though, history cannot predict the future.

The other school of thought is that written (and oral) history is a narrative form of non-fiction. They would argue that all parts of history are unique and can only be understood when they are studied in context. Theodore Roosevelt, as president of the American Historical Association, gave a speech in Boston in 1912 that addressed this very topic. Roosevelt argued that history cannot be limited to merely reciting facts or repeating tales; history needs to be full of powerful images and language that engage the student, fill him with a sense of wonderment, and give him the ability to look at history from a personal point of view.

 “One man finds what is of most importance to his own mind and heart in tracing the effect upon humanity of the spread of malaria along the shores of the Ægean; or the effect of the Black Death on the labor-market of medieval Europe; or the profound influence upon the development of the African continent of the fatal diseases borne by the bites of insects, which close some districts to human life and others to the beasts without which humanity rests at the lowest stage of savagery. One man sees the events from one view-point, one from another. Yet another can combine both.”

Annual address of the president of the American Historical Association, delivered at Boston, December 27, 1912. From the American Historical Review, Volume 18, Issue 3, p. 473-489. http://www.historians.org/info/AHA_History/troosevelt.htm

The greatest historians, Roosevelt thought, were those that had a great command of literary skills. For centuries, when the Greek and Roman cultures were dominant in the world, poetry was seen as the appropriate way to record history and to teach science as the rhyme and meter made it easier for the student to retain the information. These scholars understood that it was important to have a strong grasp of history to be able to make better decisions and question others who had different points of view.

When writing instruments became more accessible and mankind became more literate, the oral tradition was replaced by written passages and monographs. Unfortunately, there were many ‘historians’ who embellished their work or combined bits and pieces of various events and personalities. Another problem that arises with historical literature is that many authors advocate for their point of view without considering other alternatives; the facts presented with an emotional argument must always be held suspect.

So how should history be approached? In researching for this essay, there appeared to be some consistent steps followed by modern historians.

1. Research the topic, gathering information from the different sources of evidence: public and private texts, data and antiquities.

2. Analyze the information and examine the historical context of the event.

3. Scrutinize the event’s interpretation from other historians; it is at this point that the logic of their conclusions must be accepted or discarded.

4. Examine other events for similarities & differences; gather more evidence and finally consider a personal interpretation of the episodes.

5. Develop and propose questions that arise; organize the facts, thoughts and arguments to develop sound conclusions that will make better policy.

[a good resource is http://www.historyguide.org/index.html ]

Today, as the economies and cultures of our world are more intertwined than ever, it is especially important for history to be examined. As historical events are understood, the knowledge gained can be applied to incidents that are in common for all nations: those of trade and public health at all levels.

History is fun!

Until next time…

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