t h i n k i n g a b o u t r e v i s i o n i s m
Let us think for a moment more about how History is created - not the things that happen but the story about them.
People try to interpret events immediately when they happen, but being so close to the action is sometimes more of a disadvantage than an advantage. It may be good for capturing the details of specific events, but itís difficult to put those events in a larger context and to see them and understand them as part of a bigger picture. Usually the immediate participants do not have enough information or the objectivity to see the patterns that emerge later for historians.
As time passes, the people who experienced the events, the eyewitnesses, die off, but diaries, letters, reports, government documents, newspaper articles, biographies, photographs - all kinds of possibly valuable information - that may not have been available or well known become available and become a part of the public record. One role that historians play is to act as detectives. They seek out important information in libraries, archives and in private hands.
A critical part of that detective work is to check the accuracy of the information they are finding. Some of it may be proven beyond a doubt by validating sources, cross-references, and other checks for legitimacy. Historians have to make important judgements about what is undeniably true, what is murky, and what is wrong and must be rejected. These judgements are based on professional standards, not whims, and part of the writing of good History involves documenting and explaining how key judgments and selections were made.
These activities can go on for centuries: finding, verifying, sorting, relating, and interpreting a growing body of information. Historians build on the work of those who came before them. At its best, it is a little like creating and trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle that has too many pieces, and many of the pieces are not cut to fit exactly.
As time progresses, more pieces of the puzzle become clear and begin to interconnect. The research and conclusions of many historians - possibly even hundreds - add up, overlap, and interlock. The work of many people creates a consensus, a solid sense of what some parts of the puzzle mean. Other parts of the puzzle stay unclear for the time being. There may not be enough information yet to form a consensus, or what information there is may point toward conflicting interpretations.
Sometimes an individual historian or a small group will offer an entirely different interpretation of the History that has been developed. This shift may go so far as to turn a major interpretation upside down on its head. Such rethinking or changing of the dominant thinking about History is called revisionism. Just as the word suggests, it involves something being revised.
An English historian recently published a revisionist book on World War I. His thesis was that the English should not have entered the war at all and should have let France be conquered by the Germans. He argued that the terrible loss of English life during the war was more devastating to the country than it would have been to have much of Europe under German control. Whether one agrees with the thesis or not, the historian addressed the known facts, the historical record, and grappled with the key arguments in favor of entering the war.
The contribution of African-Americans to the settlement of the West, or to the fighting of America's war, was historically ignored until revisionism documented and established it.
So, revisionism can be a good thing that corrects omissions or offers a convincing alternative interpretation. Sometimes even if it is wrong, it can force mainstream historians to strengthen and better clarify their arguments.
In its worst cases, revisionism can also be very bad for History, because it can be unprofessional, biased work that undermines the process that creates the historical record. It can subvert scholarship, ignore standards of proof, and mislead people into believing nonsense. Particularly in an age of sound bites and spin control - an age in which shock value is often more important than solid content - it's very important to be able to separate legitimate historical thinking from what is bogus or second-rate.
We are encouraging you to break through the surface of History and confront its depths, to deal with its controversies and complexities, and make up your own mind - that is the key point - to think for yourself. But - thinking for yourself does not mean that anything that you feel like assuming is right is just fine. Thinking for yourself about history carries with it the responsibilities that historians face. You have to be a detective, a skeptical questioner. You need an open, fair mind, but one that is not easily convinced. You need to use evidence effectively, and to pay attention to all the evidence, not just pick out what you want and ignore what contradicts your thinking. Last but not least, you have to think about the values, beliefs, and ideas popular now and question how they might strengthen or distort how you look at the past.
To help point you in the right direction, we want to give you some intellectual weapons, because it is not gentle or completely safe where you are about to take your curiosity and questioning mind.