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Approaching the Civil War Rationally – Part Three: How We Become Better Students of History

In our two previous segments (here and here) we’ve gone over bias and logical fallacies as they relate to the study of Civil War history. Our final segment will take what we’ve learned and add a few additional morsels.

Being a better historian or history communicator means different things to different people. However, for our purposes in transitioning from Civil War buffs to Civil War historians, we should look toward the basics – for now, at least. 1This means that I won’t be getting into the realm of specifically how to research the Civil War. Such a subject would itself sprawl more than a few posts could allow. Effective research is a skill that has to be learned, and that is beyond the subject of this series. I also wish I were more comfortable with the word “historian.” It’s grown to mean anyone with a degree in history, though I don’t believe that’s the best definition.

For me, these were the basics.

Be Humble
Nobody wants to be wrong. But in order to understand history, sometimes our beliefs aren’t just challenged, they’re gutted. As long as we attach our ego to the beliefs we’ve set in stone, we’ll never be able to learn and grow. Sure, we might learn extra bits here and there, but due to confirmation bias, we’ll keep what supports us and rationalize away or ignore what doesn’t.

Forget Heritage (at least when studying history)
This is going to be a tough one for many of us. Heritage is like a religion. It’s family, it’s who we believe we are. But in the study of history, heritage – that emotional attachment to the past that our biases feed upon – is useless at best. At worst, it’s blind, cultish devotion.

This doesn’t mean we have to stop honoring our ancestors or have no interest in genealogy, of course. But setting aside heritage while studying history might allow us to view our ancestors in their proper historical setting. It’ll allow us to understand that they were real people, just like us. 2I discussed this in much more detail here.

Avoid the Echo Chamber
We surround ourselves with like-minded people. There’s nothing really wrong with it until we shut out the rest of the world. If all we see are articles and memes reconfirming our beliefs, if all we read are books doing the same, we build up this impenetrable wall of bias that reason and critical thought can’t break through.

It’s incredibly important that we at least try to understand where those with differing opinions are coming from.

Revision is Not a Dirty Word
Because the Civil War is often divisive, let’s look to another example. Pick up any given history book from the 1700s. Thomas Jefferson was fond of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, published in the 1770s. At the time, it was on the cutting edge of scholarly works. Referring to it now as a serious historical source for solid information on the Roman Empire, however, is a bad idea.

The tome is now outdated as much has been learned about Rome since the 1770s. Many of Gibbon’s theories and conclusions we know now to be simply incorrect. His work, of course, was of incredibly importance. Because of this, historians from then until the present have been revising and updating his findings, enriching our knowledge of ancient Rome.

Historians publishing today are, in fact, revisionists. To be otherwise would mean that our understanding of history is stagnant. Do deny all revisions is to admit that nothing new can be learned about the past. The fear is that modern historians will allow modern sensibilities to seep into their writings, distorting how we perceive the past. This is a valid fear, but no more valid than the fear that past historians also allowed their own contemporary sensibilities to affect their works.

This apprehension, then, is not so much a fear of revisionism as it is a fear of bias. And yet, “revisionist” is one of the harshest epithets that can be thrown around in some circles. This is a shame. Properly revising our understanding of history is absolutely essential for our understanding to grow.

Do Not Pick Sides
Seriously. We need to stop doing this with history. I used to argue from the pro-Confederate perspective. It was ridiculous. Looking back, it’s like I was rooting for my favorite football team to win a Super Bowl they lost 150 years ago.

Not only is it silly (and a little creepy), it’s the opposite of studying history. When you’re rooting for one side or the other to win a century and a half old war, there is no way at all that you can remain neutral.

This is not to say, of course, that you can’t find redeeming qualities in personalities and politics of the time. But we can’t let our affinities blind us to historical evidence. So let’s stop picking sides. Instead, let’s start approaching history like the reasonable people we should be.

No More Heroes
We sometimes lose touch with the fact that historical personalities were regular human beings just like the rest of us. They had good points and bad. They were sometimes moral, sometimes immoral. Their decisions were influenced by the the times they lived in, the company they kept, as well as their own assumptions and conclusions. Most importantly, they made mistakes – they were not perfect. There are no exceptions to this rule. Hero worship always leads to either bias or disappointment. It is essential that we avoid it in every case.

Certainly we all have specific individuals we take a liking to. Some adore Robert E. Lee, while others hang on every word written by Joshua Chamberlain. Personally, I found Jacob Cox fascinating. But all of these people were simply human. Extraordinary, maybe – but in the end they were susceptible to both good and bad influences. Whether it’s Stonewall, Lincoln, Douglass or Davis, be prepared to discover that if you keep an open, critical mind, your heroes soon become all too human.

Stop Using the Word “Truth”
I delved into this subject a few months back, so I won’t bore you with too many details. Truth means different things to different people. When I began writing this blog, I had two different people urge me on, hoping that I’d “tell the truth about history.” Curiously, one was very pro-Confederate, while the other was fairly anti-Confederate. What the former might accept as “truth” the latter would likely flag as a lie.

obiwan

I found that it helps to think of truth not as something that can be correct or incorrect. Instead, I think of the word “true” as a carpenter or woodworker might understand it. When you’re building a bookshelf, you’d like the pieces to fit together, so you make sure that your cuts are true. This doesn’t mean that everything else that is ever built will have the same measurements. It means that in order for these particular pieces to fit together, they have to be true to that specific design. That is what truth is – it’s the relative way we fit our pieces together. In a broader sense, it’s the stuff we believe. Sure, quite often these truths are actually facts or based upon facts, but too often they’re not. 3Just to be clear, I’m not referencing moral relativism even a little bit.

Again, this doesn’t mean that the person who honestly disagrees with facts is lying, it just means that their truth is not factual. It’s still true to them. I guess it’s sort of like Obi-Wan Kenobi said to Luke:

“You’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.”

At any rate, using the word “truth” in discussions about history tends to be confusing. For that reason, at least, it might be better to replace it with a more specific word.

Be True to the Evidence
We can tell nearly endless stories through our study and love of history, but these stories have to be grounded in all of the evidence. We’ll be tempted to pick and choose which evidence to use, but unless we take into account all of it, we are not being true to any of it.

If we want to be good history communicators, we need to be true to the evidence. 4Same definition of “Truth” as above. How we interpret history, and how we craft our stories must be based upon the known evidence. If new evidence is discovered or made available to us, we have to consider it and, if necessary, change our interpretation. It has to work this way and not the other way around. We can’t come to history with a preconceived story and cherry pick only the evidence that supports our story.

Find Common Ground
This is probably the most important object. Have you ever noticed that if you’re having an honest, rational discussion with someone who disagrees with you, you’ll usually end up coming to some calm understanding? If we are respectful of each other, we can disagree and not resort to irrational thought and discourse. If you can, try to find common ground and build upon it.

In some cases, it might seem to be impossible to find much to work with, but any bit of bridging certainly helps. From there, a rational discussion, complete with evidence and learning can ensue.

Finally!

Many of us refuse to accept certain bits of evidence because they conflict with our beliefs. But if we put our position as historians and history communicators ahead of our attachment to things like heritage, desire, and “truth,” we’ll be better able to comprehend and process newly presented evidence.

We have to train ourselves to avoid the pitfalls of logical fallacies, and to always be certain that we’re using properly researched and utilized facts to back up our conclusions. Claiming that something is true simply because we want it to be can no longer be sufficient for us. Our craving for knowledge and learning must extend beyond the social pressures put upon us by heritage, as well as our desire to be right. Through this vigilance, we can turn ourselves into rational and critical thinkers, skeptics and historians.

References   [ + ]

Eric
Eric has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, he wrote the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, he decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.

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