October 5, 2009

Problems in History

The following is my take on a few things about the subject of history that has been on my mind for a while. There are a few problems that I have with the subject, especially pertaining to how it is usually taught, well at least how it was taught to me.

The first problem, is not so much a problem with the subject of history itself, but how with how serious people take revisionist history. People can have great arguments over topics like 'If the United States hadn't joined the Allies in World War 2 than the Axis would have won the War' and while the arguments may be a good exercise in debate and general thinking they cannot be at all taken seriously. No one can say what would have happened if something in the past would have been different, there are just to many variables to account for. To look at revisionist history as anything more than a parlor game is to turn speculation into a quasi-truth. Revisionist history is a total act of the imagination and the further that it is taken turn past events and facts into a slippery slope of causation creating an event where the results couldn't be known.

The second problem comes from the types of essays people are forced to write, the opinion essay on historical events. There are a couple of things wrong with having to write that type of an essay, the first being that peoples opinions and understanding are being shaped by the topics they are forced to choose from. This is especially true when a person hasn't yet formed an opinion about the topic they are writing on. When people are forced to take a side and defend it they, statistically speaking, start to believe that side is correct after they are finished their writing. The act of writing and being forced to take a side has tricked the person into believing something.

Why this happens is easy to understand when the process of writing an opinion essay is examined. A student quickly chooses a side and then cherry picks information for their essay that supports that side. The people forced to write on these topics are only looking for confirming information and if dis-confirming information is going to have any place within their essay it has to be rebuked. It is a process of belief creation, where evidence is being collected in an extremely biased fashion, and it is encouraged at all levels of the education system.

This problem is only further compounded by the fact that if someone has an opinion about something it takes a great amount of information to persuade that person that their opinion is wrong. Sometimes no amount of information is enough. Through forced essay topics people can bend students opinions and beliefs about the world.

Thanks for reading,
-the moral skeptic


  1. This is an idea that I have also come to in the culmination of my education. The powers of rhetoric never cease to amaze me. What is being said isn't nearly as important as *how* it is said. Knowledge is like the the score at the end of the game. Its outcome relies completely on the skill of its players, not on some universal truth that can't be disputed.

    Ann Coulter is a prime example: most of her arguments are based on biggoted assumptions and fear mongering ignorance, yet her style and delivery attracts so much attention and reaches so many people, that she can appear on T.V. as a legitimate political commentator where she has probably swayed many voters. The mere reality that she has legions of fans who believe in her extremist ideals shows that you don't necessarily have to be correct in order to convince large amounts of people. Ever heard of the saying "ignorance begets ignorance?" (or something similar). People don't believe her because she speaks the truth, they believe her because she appears so confidently, uses big words, humor, and constantly finds different ways to argue a point. At the end of the day, when she says with a straight face that the US would benefit from building 20 ft concrete walls along the entire U.S. border with armed watch towers, she relies completely on her rhetoric and selected audience to sound like she has good reason to make that claim. Truth and knowledge have nothing to do with it.

    Blake once said: "Eternity is in love with the productions of time." You could make a similar analogy with "Truth is in love with the productions of Power." The two concepts are constantly linked. one feeds from the other. Sorry... I know, I just brought Foucault into it.

  2. Thanks Andrew, good comment. I really despise Anne Coulter for a number of reasons, but I really despise her knowledge and treatment of evolution. She is a really one of those people who only looks for confirming information and while she lectures and informs people on the pitfalls of evolution she has never opened a biology text book for herself. She just reads the creationist arguments agianst evolution and goes from there. She might be the master of the opinion essay, where research into one side is all that is done.