The Historian's Perils Essay

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The Historian's Perils

The objective of most higher-level education in general, and specifically of liberal education, is often misunderstood. The goal is not necessarily in direct preparation for a particular skill or for employment, but instead has a more indirect aim of instilling knowledge, frames of reference and the ability to think and express oneself. History is particularly rich in the opportunity it offers for learning how to think, owing in part to the challenges inherent in its subject matter and to the strong tradition among historians of cultivating the general powers of intellect. The techniques of historical study and thinking, exacting as they are, nonetheless have a high "carry-over" value for other subjects and
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This reconstructive process is a perilous one, fraught with potential for misinterpretation and/or misuse of the facts. The ambiguity of the "facts" themselves are clearly problematic, but more so are the ways those facts are discovered and subsequently presented. How does a historian know when he has reached genuine testimony of an event that transpired before he himself had even existed? Pictures can lie, and printed matter can be partisan - though commonly accepted as being true likenesses of their subjects, photographs and portraits (the former more so than the latter), are actually only indicative of what either the subject or the artist wanted others to see. Bearing this caveat in mind, pictures then become subject to the same scrutiny as any other piece of evidence, so much so that examining the angle, focus, location and pose of pictures becomes more revealing than perhaps the picture itself. Think about it: why was this subject or information deemed important enough to paint or take a picture of, and by whom? For what purpose and/or audience was it intended, and how if at all, did that intention differ from it's actual use? What was going on around the subject that didn't get captured in the picture? With any of these questions left unanswered, it becomes apparent that

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