My view of history
History, a study of the past, is based on facts. Of the innumerable facts in the past, the historian selects which are significant. Then comes an interpretation of these facts.
Is the historian objective? Objectivity is an ideal to aspire to, but it is never quite reached. Be immediately suspicious of one who claims to be completely objective. We all have our preconceptions, our prejudices. The best we can do is be up front
about them. Do our interpretations make sense? Never assume the historian has some final truth.
Is history a science? In the way physics or mathematics may be considered a more exact science, the answer is no. History cannot predict the future with any exactitude.
So can anything be understood? Some argue that we are dealing totally with unexplainable chaos. I disagree. There is a view that all history is accident -- an earthquake here, a premature death of a leader there. Indeed, these things happen. But are we therefore left clueless? I would say no.
History studies causation -- what led to events occurring. What are the various causes? One argument is call the Great Man Theory of History. All we need to study are the lives of great men in history. That there are figures with powerful personalities who had a great impact on a society, I do not dispute. The problem I have with this idea is that it usually excludes women, over half of the given population of the time. It also tends to exclude the social forces at work that brought such figures to great influence.
Another view of history is to see it as the story of progress -- from the Stone Age to the present. That is certainly one way of looking at it. But progress is often in the eyes of the beholder. In the days of American slavery, the slave master might see history as progress. The slave probably would not. After the Civil War, the ex-slave master might see history as going downhill. The ex-slave might now see progress. When England had a mighty colonial empire, that English upper class might see history as progress; the conquered peoples might not. The reversal of viewpoint might accompany the collapse of that empire. Progress may therefore be a relative term.
Allowing for all of the above, I must place human beings at the center of the story of history, what they have been capable of, for better or worse, in their relationship to nature and each other.
Facts such as names and dates may seem dry and boring. The point is to bring them alive in the interpreting of them. I believe history is inherently a dramatic story, and I hope to convey that.
-- Prof. Eugene Lieber