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Is History True? How Accurate is it?

Updated on November 26, 2016
Sherry Hewins profile image

I am a student of life and of history. By studying the past, we prepare for the future.

Why Should Students Study History?

It is certainly more possible to get through daily life with little knowledge of history than say, math or grammar. And with math particularly, there is one correct answer, it is never subjective or open to interpretation. However, it is essential to understand where we have been, to have a sense of where we fit in in the world. Our knowledge of history influences our perception of ourselves, and our identity as a nation.

WWII era Anti-Japanese Cartoon

Even the "good guys" used propaganda
Even the "good guys" used propaganda | Source

Objective History - Is it Even Possible?

Each human being interprets events though the lens of his own subconscious biases and perspectives. In addition to this, when studying the past, historians are dependent upon the writings and observations of others who were also were influenced by their own preconceived ideas. Can any historian be truly objective?

This is why documentation of events is essential. But even that can be faked or spun to confirm a particular viewpoint. Even without outright fabrication, when certain parts of a story are emphasized and others are left out, it can lead to misconceptions. Yet, it is not possible to include every detail. In order to make sense of history, value judgments must be made as to what information is significant in a given narrative. These decisions are often subjective. Two different, well-meaning and diligent historians, given the same data, might make different choices.

The purpose of studying history should be more than memorizing names and dates, but to learn to think critically about the events of the past in order to discern their importance and learn the lessons they have to teach.

Perspective is Everything

Modern day police will tell you that when the same event is recounted by two different eyewitnesses, they will see the same event differently depending upon their perspective. This applies to historical events as well. The battle of the Little Big Horn would have been perceived very differently by a Cavalry officer, than by an Indian brave. But the passage of time can sometimes allow us to take a broader view, and place events in a more appropriate context. History is not a fixed thing, though the facts may not change, our analysis of the events of the past are what allow us to learn from it.

The history lessons taught to children in school are, in part by necessity, simplified and sanitized. They minimize or ignore some of the less flattering incidents. The story tends to be drawn in black and white, without nuance. Every historical figure is either hero or villain, often resembling myth more than reality. It's sad, because not only is the whole messy, complicated story more instructive, it's more interesting. But perhaps this would not build the kind of blind national pride that may be considered desirable in a citizen.

Those Who Tell the Stories Hold the Power - Plato

The intentional distortion of history can easily be used to influence public sentiment, to demonize an enemy, or mobilize support for military action. We consider ourselves fortunate here in the US that our ideal, and the law of the land, is free speech and freedom of the press.

This does not mean that we are immune to this type of manipulation. We don't always get the whole story, but at least we are free to discuss and debate controversial issues which may be inconvenient to our government.

Perhaps because we take this openness for granted, we are sometimes unaware of how the way information is presented to us can influence our thoughts and opinions.

© 2012 Sherry Hewins

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    • Just History profile image

      Just History 4 years ago from England

      Wow you have said everything I have ever thought. As for the police/evidence part I totally agree- having worked in a court setting for five years I saw many papers where witnesses basically saw the same thing but it was different.

      At the moment I am having a debate in my mind over history and imagery- Now that this is a medium will this change our perceptions- has it done so already? Rather like the idea that we base some of our insight on post renaissance characters from portraiture! Thanks for the additional input!

      Voted up, interesting and awesome- and also Thanks you really have moved my brain along today

    • hpedneau profile image

      Holly Pedneau 4 years ago from Princeton, West Virginia

      Awesome hub! I personally struggled when obtaining a B.A. in History because of the amount of knowledge I didn't learn in high school. It wasn't lack of teaching, it was lack of, well, depth. Great perspective, voted up!

    • Civil War Bob profile image

      Civil War Bob 4 years ago from Glenside, Pennsylvania

      Good hub, Sherry...voted up, useful, interesting. I think your sentence, "The intentional distortion of history..." IS the answer to your question "Why study history?" And, NO, there really is no objective history because people cannot be objective, as you say. Even dates are not "hard and fast" if you raise dispute in Julian and Gregorian calendars, etc.

      Oh, I actually wrote a Civil War History entitled God Caused the Civil War which 71 publishers rejected as too controversial; which is understandable, though disappointing to some degree, so I'm clearly on the side of interpretive history, I guess!

      Have a great weekend!

    • Sherry Hewins profile image
      Author

      Sherry Hewins 4 years ago from Sierra Foothills, CA

      Just History: Thank you so much for your comment and the additional insight into the court system. I'm glad if I helped stimulate your brain today.

    • Sherry Hewins profile image
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      Sherry Hewins 4 years ago from Sierra Foothills, CA

      hpedneau: Thanks for your comment. You're right, the history taught in high school is pretty superficial.

    • Sherry Hewins profile image
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      Sherry Hewins 4 years ago from Sierra Foothills, CA

      Civil War Bob: I would be so fascinated to read your book. Have you thought about publishing it as an ebook? Seems like controversy is "in" these days. Thanks so much for reading and commenting on my hubs.

    • Civil War Bob profile image

      Civil War Bob 4 years ago from Glenside, Pennsylvania

      Sherry, parts of it are quoted in my various Civil War hubs in HubPages, there's a single spaced manuscript copy in Westminster Seminary's Library where I used to work for inter-library loan, and I send it to anyone wanting it by email in small chunks, if you want to go that route.

      I may look into the ebook option...thanks for the thought.

    • ThoughtSandwiches profile image

      ThoughtSandwiches 4 years ago from Reno, Nevada

      sherry,

      Prior to the "professionalism" of the discipline I would say that history served more of a self-serving jingoistic function rather than any actual scholarship and a certain amount of that has spilled over into the modern discourse.

      Objectivity is the key and while a certain amount is supplied through the passage of time, the prism is still clouded by the historian's perspective.

      Excellent job which I will be shouting about and sharing and such.

      Thomas

    • Sherry Hewins profile image
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      Sherry Hewins 4 years ago from Sierra Foothills, CA

      Thanks so much Thomas, for reading and sharing. I'm not sure the passage of time gives objectivity, just a different though still possibly skewed perspective. If we are at least self-aware we can come closer to that ideal.

    • Theophanes profile image

      Theophanes 4 years ago from New England

      History is written by the winners - or with our changing times perhaps the bloggers. I love to read journals from historic periods, it's the closest you can get to talking to an individual from the past or living it yourself. That being said history as its taught in schools is not only sanitized its very often completely wrong. Check out Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. It a VERY eye opening read!

    • profile image

      alloporus 4 years ago

      Great Hub Sherry. We are scrambling for the future with so much energy that it cannot come fast enough and in our haste we forget to take those critical lessons from the past. Especially those that require us to be humble. Thanks for the fascinating Hub.

    • Sherry Hewins profile image
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      Sherry Hewins 4 years ago from Sierra Foothills, CA

      Thanks for the suggestion Theophanes. I really appreciate your comment.

    • Sherry Hewins profile image
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      Sherry Hewins 4 years ago from Sierra Foothills, CA

      alloporus, Sometimes I despair that we have really learned anything at all. It seems we must learn the same lessons over and over again. Thanks so much for reading and commenting.

    • profile image

      nasirps 4 years ago

      American History, yes we are talking about Modern History

      not about pre colombian era or colonial era. That all americans want to forget that.

    • Sherry Hewins profile image
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      Sherry Hewins 4 years ago from Sierra Foothills, CA

      No nation can be proud of everything in it's past. That doesn't mean we should forget. Thanks for your comment nasirps

    • Adsenseonline profile image

      Adsenseonline 4 years ago

      Does America have a history ? Or is it just an extended piece of British history? I mean come on even the word America was named after a British man Richard Ameryk? What is it 500 year history max

    • Theophanes profile image

      Theophanes 4 years ago from New England

      Adsenseonline: There were at least 4 million people here before the British set foot in this place, though we really like to ignore that fact. 500 years still isn't anything to sneeze at... Christ, look at how much has changed in 500 years. Is that not history? We jut don't have a known ancient history, that's all. And oh yeah there were other European colonies here, not just British so our extended history is more that of Europe than just Britain... No offense.

    • Adsenseonline profile image

      Adsenseonline 4 years ago

      Agreed there was other colonies there.

      But the vast numbers to this day who are or consider themselves as British descendants is 222.9 million that's an actual Fact.

      4 million i really don't think so, that number is so massive even on a 300 year time scale. Lets put this in perspective in the late 1600's the total population of the Americas was

      2.7 million very much need to check your figures.

      No offense taken

    • Theophanes profile image

      Theophanes 4 years ago from New England

      I was talking all of the Americas including mezoAmerica which had enormous civilizations before European disease and warfare wiped them out.

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 4 years ago from England

      Recently I wrote about the true historic events that happened in the UK, so I totally understand where you are coming from on this. Even today we still get distrust from our neighbors because of the wrong way that history was taught in schools, and it seems that American history is the same too, voted up! cheers nell

    • Au fait profile image

      C E Clark 4 years ago from North Texas

      Don't forget the power those people have who sit on a state board deciding what historical events will be included in public school history books and which ones will not. Texas plays a bigger part in what goes into school textbooks than any other state and it will not be put in print, right or wrong, if it doesn't agree with the people who make these decisions in Texas. It's not always an issue of 'part of the story,' but of changing the entire story (or repressing it) to suit a political agenda.

    • Sherry Hewins profile image
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      Sherry Hewins 4 years ago from Sierra Foothills, CA

      Au fait: Absolutely it's a power game, not only do Those who tell the stories hold the power, those who hold the power tell the stories. I would be interested to hear specific examples of historical events that have been entirely changed or fabricated. Thanks for commenting.

    • Dexter Yarbrough profile image

      Dexter Yarbrough 4 years ago from United States

      Sherry! This is one of the most thought-provoking hubs I have read in sometime. There is a lot of truth in your words. Voted up!

    • Vinaya Ghimire profile image

      Vinaya Ghimire 4 years ago from Nepal

      No matter what we cannot escape our history. Recently, I heard from an American professor that the US is whitewashing the Vietnam debacle.

      Omitting historical episodes is bad.

    • Sherry Hewins profile image
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      Sherry Hewins 4 years ago from Sierra Foothills, CA

      You're right Vinaya Ghimire, No matter how distasteful some episodes in our history may be, it does us no good to hide from it.

    • moonlake profile image

      moonlake 4 years ago from America

      I agree with you all our history is important good or bad. Mistakes we have made and the great things we have done.

      I do believe our kids are learning from whoever writes the history textbooks at the time. History textbook will be completely different in an 1880 text than in a 2012 text. No wonder our teenagers are so confused. Enjoyed your hub.

    • Sherry Hewins profile image
      Author

      Sherry Hewins 4 years ago from Sierra Foothills, CA

      Thanks for reading moonlake, you're so right about that. Events of the past are always being re-evaluated, analyzed and prioritized. It's funny I find history so fascinating now, but when I was in school it seemed such a bore.

    • PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

      Justin W Price 4 years ago from Juneau, Alaska

      Very true, about human biases. That's why Howard Zinn has always fascinated me. His take on history is so different from the mainstream... whether or not it's accurate, I don't know, but it's a good read :-)

    • Sherry Hewins profile image
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      Sherry Hewins 4 years ago from Sierra Foothills, CA

      I'm not familiar with his writing, I'll have to look. Thanks so much for reading and commenting on my hub.

    • Glenn Stok profile image

      Glenn Stok 4 years ago from Long Island, NY

      One of the problems I remember having when learning history in school (decades ago) was that it was not presented in an interesting manner. That made it hard to learn historical events. You explained it well when you mentioned that history was taught in black and white, without nuance. That explains a lot to me.

      I think there are some efforts lately to change that and make the teaching of history more interesting by bringing out the dirt beneath the story. As you explained, “Every historical figure is either hero or villain, often resembling myth more than reality.” That indeed would make a difference in how it’s taught.

      As for accuracy, that will always be a problem. You quoted Plato as saying, “Those who tell the stories hold the power.” That’s a powerful statement. Those to tell the story can lie about it, they can give their own interpretation of it, or they can brainwash others.

      What all this means is that we always need to take what we learn with a grain of salt. We need to do our due diligence to try to determine if the historical facts we are learning are indeed true.

      As you can see, you got me started. I found your hub very enlightening and voted it up.

    • Sherry Hewins profile image
      Author

      Sherry Hewins 4 years ago from Sierra Foothills, CA

      I agree completely that the history I learned in school was boring, which seems odd. It's our stories, our past, so many strange, awful, wonderful and unbelievable things have happened, how could it not be fascinating. But the manipulation of the historical facts has always been a problem, and since we can't go back in time can we ever really be sure what the truth is?

    • Glenn Stok profile image

      Glenn Stok 4 years ago from Long Island, NY

      Sherry, That's true with things happening today too. We never really know what the truth is with what's going on in politics.

    • Sherry Hewins profile image
      Author

      Sherry Hewins 4 years ago from Sierra Foothills, CA

      Yep, we don't even know what's going on in the present, much less the past. Thanks for your comments Glenn

    • Sharkye11 profile image

      Jayme Kinsey 4 years ago from Oklahoma

      Brilliant topic, and one my greatest pet peeves. I was homeschooled, and thought history in all its gory detail was fascinating. Not just American history, but any history I could read about.

      I was shocked later when I entered one of those institutions of higher learning and found out that the facts they were presenting were skewed. Arguing the validity of their information earned me plenty of disapproval. I've never trusted schools since then. I think that with certain subjects such as history, they are subtly manipulating children and later young adults to believe in a certain way.

      You made an excellent point about the hero vs. villain part. It is taught that no villain can be respected and no hero could have shortcomings. And like you said, that is much more myth than reality.

      Very enjoyable hub. I am definitely going to show it lots of love!

    • Alecia Murphy profile image

      Alecia Murphy 4 years ago from Wilmington, North Carolina

      History is a lot like science in the regard that methods and intentions are constantly questioned. I agree that history really serves as the basis for a good story instead of reporting the facts. But anytime humans are involved, there's always going to be complications. Great hub!

    • Sherry Hewins profile image
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      Sherry Hewins 4 years ago from Sierra Foothills, CA

      Very well said Sharkeye11. We can see now that our modern-day heroes are only too human. I so appreciate your insightful comment and your hublove.

    • Sherry Hewins profile image
      Author

      Sherry Hewins 4 years ago from Sierra Foothills, CA

      I tend to think of science as more fact-based, theories can be tested and proven. At least that's how it's supposed to work. But I guess people still put their spin on it, focusing on what proves their expectations and not what disproves them. You are right, I think it's very hard for people to leave their biases out of anything they study. Thanks so much for reading and commenting Alecia Murphy.

    • Savio Dawson profile image

      Savio Koman 3 years ago from Mumbai, India

      So true Sherry. Perspective and Interpretation differ from individual to individual and differ even within the same individual. So, when we add a dose of "like or dislike" history only distorts the truth further.

      At the end of the day history is to be read to understand and appreciate the past, rather than build biases.. :)

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 2 years ago from Queensland Australia

      A very interesting perspective on history, and yes it is sanitized especially for children and the history of each particular country is censored to mainly only show things in that country's favour and to exclude any atrocities they may have committed. Voted up.

    • Robert Sacchi profile image

      Robert Sacchi 15 months ago

      It is said all information is news, all editing is commentary.

    • Sherry Hewins profile image
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      Sherry Hewins 14 months ago from Sierra Foothills, CA

      Robert Sacchi - the Internet has added a whole new dimension to this. Anyone can say anytthing they want to about anything, and it can travel around the world in hours.

      Sometimes it is hard to tell information from editing.

    • Robert Sacchi profile image

      Robert Sacchi 14 months ago

      Yes, the internet has made a lot more information and disinformation easily available. It takes a careful read to figure out what is useful information.

    • Robert Sacchi profile image

      Robert Sacchi 4 weeks ago

      One of the problems with teaching history is the agenda of who is doing the teaching. If the teacher is teaching about the innacurate information teachers taught their students a generation ago why wouldn't the students being taught this wonder if their teacher isn't teaching is also teaching innacurate information? It would seem in the best interest of the teacher to teach, teachers were always teaching correct information.

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