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|As a part of their education and professional development, historians are trained in historiography, the study of how other historians have written about the past. Historians must be aware of what has been previously written about their subject for a number of reasons. First, historians want to make original contributions to their field. Knowing what others have said before is essential to avoiding redundant work. Historians also study what others have written about the past because the passage of time impacts historical interpretation.
The fact that historical interpretations change over time can be confusing. Those who are not familiar with the study of history sometimes use the term “revisionist history” with derision; to them, it seems that the narrative of the past cannot be changed, since the past should be a fixed point of facts. However, our interpretations of the past do change, often due to the times in which we live.
Consider the following: Prior to the beginning of the twentieth century, many of the histories that could be found in libraries and schools were about great men like George Washington and James Madison, or about great events like the American Revolution and the War of 1812. The nation’s historical narrative told stories of progress. Educated men who had the luxury of time and money wrote these histories. At the turn of that century, however, the Progressive Era birthed reformers who sought to enact social and economic change in American society. Historians who wrote in this era showed signs of being impacted by the times that they lived in; they wrote about economic division. Eventually, however, other historians questioned the Progressive interpretation of the past. In the post-WWII era when Cold War fears were high and American unity was emphasized, consensus interpretations of the past emerged and challenged the narrative of division penned by Progressive historians. Following the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and amidst the Vietnam War and women’s liberation movement, historians interpreted history from the perspective of average individuals. Their subjects fought as enlisted men, worked in a variety of occupations, and were African Americans, immigrants, women, and children. Other historians observed the power of ideas in all of these periods and insisted that ideological interpretations of the past could not be discounted.
As you can see, the histories that you read today have been impacted by the times in which they were written. Without a doubt, the histories that are written in the future will also be impacted by the times in which the authors live. For example, as Baby Boomer historians grow older, we might see age grow in popularity as a category of historical analysis. As you begin your own research, be mindful of the times, including the one you currently occupy.
Video: What Is Historiography? (2:09)
HIS 100 Module Five Historical Interpretations Text Only Transcript
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