Monday, February 20, 2017

Becker and Bailyn on the Practice of History

Although separated in time by sixty years, Carl Becker and Bernard Bailyn are both concerned with the nature of “history” and the practice of historians’ work.  Despite this temporal separation their definitions and concerns for the practice of the historians’ craft are remarkably similar: what is “history”, how should quantifiable data be incorporated into historical writing, the generational revision of historical meaning, and the relevance of “history” to society.  Interestingly, their responses to these issues are similar, with a few important differences.

Recognizing the need for a common starting point, Becker provides a base definition of “history” as “the memory of events that have occurred in the past.”  This definition conveniently includes large events like the Apollo moon landing, and small events like driving to class.  A broad definition is useful for Becker’s argument that history is pervasive in human life.  The pervasiveness is important not only because it shows that on some level everyone is a historian because they must perform the same types of tasks to get through daily life.  Just as historians attempt to reconstruct the past based on recovered documents, so does the average person.  Becker uses the example of paying household bills to illustrate this point – if the bill in question is not on hand, it must be sought out, sometimes require searches in multiple locations before a satisfactory resolution is found.  Becker further expands the utility of history into the creation of both the present and the future through the utility of cause and effect relationships; memory of the past allows people to anticipate what may happen in the future, providing a usable time stream beyond that posited for less evolved species.

The idea that history creates both past and future through the anticipatory moment leads Becker to argue that history is an imaginative creation, whether at the hands of the individual or the professional historian, based on the experiences of the creator.  History is separated from fiction by the limitations imposed by society to base history on verifiable outside sources like class schedules or contracts.  Still, despite the requirement for outside sources, Becker writes that the history of the individual is a near mythical thing based on based on a combination of “fact and fancy.”  The creation of history in this way also impacts the professional historians, who are influenced by their own personal experiences, real and imagined.  The difference is that the professional historian is under the additional onus of remembering the distant past for the recollection of society at large.

The additional task of remembering the past for the community forces upon professional historians additional limitations not suffered by the individual that creates his own history.  This additional task is to make history fit accepted social traditions, while preserving the knowledge of the actual events that took place.  If possible, the professional historian should also correct society’s misunderstanding of events for the greater good – to tell a “true” story instead of the story that tradition tells for the benefit of society as a whole.

Becker also assigns to professional historians the task of interpreting the past and giving it meaning for the current generation.  In this he argues that a bald retelling of facts, or quantification of statistics and events does not help society anymore than simply looking into a mirror.  At the base of this mountainous endeavor is the requirement to meticulously unearth the facts contained in documents of all types and ascertaining their validity and accuracy.  It is not enough to assume that presenting the facts is enough.  Instead, Becker argues that Historians must tell their societies what the facts and events mean.

Bailyn uses Becker’s definition of history as “memory of things said and done,” with the corollary that it is the “artificial extension of memory” to formulate a basis for the modern practice of historians.  Like Becker, Bailyn utilizes a broad definition of who to consider a historian, specifically including public historians, biographers, journalists, and corporate historians as individuals responsible for artificially extending the memory of the past.

Like Becker, Bailyn assigns a heavy social duty to professional historians, writing that not only do historians have the duty to interpret the bare facts that represent the past.  Bailyn includes in the historians’ duty the task of keeping society “sane.”  The duty of keeping their societies sane through the presentation and interpretation of accurate historical information is due primarily to history’s function of orienting individuals to the present.  This function of orienting society as a whole is the source of totalitarian regimes efforts to control the presentation of the past both in real situations like the former Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, and in fictional situations like George Orwell’s 1984.  The impact of the social orientation function of history goes a long way to explaining the inclusion of the history curriculum during the 1980s and 1990s, as both conservative and liberal activists strove to deploy their vision of the past for social and political reasons.

The major difference between Becker’s and Bailyn’s analyses of the historical profession comes in the dependence on quantifiable data and statistical analysis.  Where Becker applauded the gradual return to more literary approach to historical writing in the 1930s, Bailyn believes that quantification of data and statistical analysis are essential parts of the historians’ craft.  One difference is that modern historians’ reliance on quantifiable data is combined with the understanding that such data must be interpreted for readers, not simply presented to them as a finished product by themselves.  The primary reason for the difference in opinions on the utility of quantifiable data is that modern historians have access to computers and advanced statistical methods that allow more complex analysis of large amounts of data that historians can them interpret as having specific meanings.  In effect, information technology allows the modern historian to combine stark quantifiable data with literary methods in a manner that would be satisfactory to both Becker and Bailyn.

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