Secondary School History: Causation and Interpretation in Historiography

“Do causes exist objectively in the world, or are they just a category our mind uses to order sensory inputs, in which case causation is subjective.” (Aviezer Tucker, 2009, 98)

For younger students, CAUSATION is usually the most complex of the historical skills to master, yet arguably the most important in some ways in that the historical narrative loses coherence without there being a series of causes to the consequences which constitute the history. On the surface at least. As Tucker points out here, the problem lies in the difficulty of distinguishing whether the causations and their interpretation as causes can truly be objective or whether they must, by definition, be subjective, coloured by the point of view and the cultural biases of the individual. Furthermore, to what extent is a cause an indisputable cause such as in a Universalist interpretation? Or must there be a refuting of this due to the total unpredictability of human nature, and the option of free will in reactions, meaning that the understanding of causality in a scientific sense cannot be applied to the historical narrative? Interpretation of the causes in historiography and realising this then recognising it is a problematic area in helping students in schools to become effective in their critical view of historical events and the ways in which they are interpreted by various historians in secondary and witnesses in primary sources, leading to a better understanding of academic history. Is it possible to state categorically that Historian A is correct in her interpretation while Historian B is wrong in his and remain objective in the examination of both? In doing so, are the students falling into the trap:
“Humans studying and describing other humans risk imposing their own ideas and sensibilities on the others. Considering that the people in the past lived in cultures somewhat different from present ones, describing them in terms and concepts appropriate to our own time may be at least inaccurate. Describing the past in ways that make sense to us may amount to just describing ourselves in different circumstances. But subjectivity might be unavoidable, since we have to describe the past in ways that make sense to us and on our terms.” (Kosso, P, 2009, 8)

This broadens the question in many ways – we are not just separated from the understanding of the causality and its place in time, but in understanding societal and cultural norms which were so totally different from our own. An obvious example is slavery – until the early to mid 19th century, depending on where we examine, the idea of a socio-economic structure which was not underpinned by the unpaid labour of an underclass in society, an underclass which had no rights, only duties, which was owned, not employed, would have seemed a ridiculous and naïve idea. The admiration of the Romans in this period can be seen to be based on the interpretation of the societal structure described above reached its zenith in the slave based structure of the Romans. Yet today, in our modern understanding of such things, we view the concept of one human owning another as, in general terms, pure anathema when examining it from the Western outlook. Are we by definition correct in our interpretation of the institution of slavery? Or are we simply imposing our 21st century outlook on something which was an important part, an integral cause, in the success of the Classical world, its growth in ideas and mores and something which underpins the society in which we live today – the society which teaches us that slavery is anathema…? Without the institution of slavery as a key part in the growth of the economic power and the freeing of the citizens from drudgery to serve in the hoplite phalanx and the legions, would our western world have experienced the series of events and growth and collapse of empires which has led us to the society in which we live, whether we agree with it or not? Can we objectively look at the role the institution of slavery played in the Classical, Mediaeval and Renaissance worlds as well as the loosening of the power of the slave owners and the need for indentured labour through the Industrial Revolution? Can we objectively condemn and curse the institution which, on a level of causation could be interpreted as being among the catalysts which allowed out society to develop, or is our condemnation of slavery a purely subjective one based on our ability to survive as a society without the said institution? Might a future society which again relies on slavery, but has solid ecologically sound societal practices and belief not look back on us as primitive idiots who put individual liberty above the survival of the planet and the sane use of its resources, burning huge amounts of the limited raw materials we have and polluting the air we breathe rather than using the forced labour of an underclass to carry out tasks which are now done by machines driven by fossil fuels? If they were to view the survival of the planet at the expense of a small number of oppressed as being the correct view, how would their historians view the ‘advances’ of the last two centuries in causation of the destruction of the environment? Granted, this is a very simplistic example, and one which we can never answer as none of us will be alive when such could occur, but the role of subjectivism and “intellectual colonialism” in our interpretations cannot be ignored, and particularly in our understanding of causation on the historical narrative. An area which will give you a better idea might be to compare the European Christian, Middle Eastern Islamic and Jewish accounts of the Crusades – how do the different accounts interpret the causes, the processes and the outcomes of these?

In your examination of the sources, the narratives and the whole historiography of a period you are studying, always question where the bias lies, where the imposition of contemporary social ideas are imposed anachronistically, and whether these can actually be avoided? After all, who, with any sense of human values and liberties in the modern sense, would be able to justify objectively the case for slavery being reintroduced?

Remember, always question the interpretation, compare with as many interpretations as you can and look at whether one interpretation can be better trusted in the understanding of causation over short periods in the historical timeframe as well as over a wider scope.

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