Story and Fact
Historians tell stories about the past. The discipline of history provides the methodology to ensure that the storytelling matches the facts. Every history begins with a proto-story, an idea that the historian has about what happened and why, about what of significance occurred at some place and at a particular time. Historians do not approach the past in a random fashion but instead, like all researchers, they begin with an idea they want to test, using the methods of history, against the facts. Unlike experimental scientists, however, historians cannot recreate the conditions and circumstances of the past events and people they study. Instead, they rely on the information, the facts, they can discover and verify to support their analysis and interpretation.
Facts, although we may believe we understand what they are, can sometimes prove elusive. Some facts are easier than others. A birth or death date, the year of a flood or earthquake, the month of the battle, the date of the football game, these all represent facts that we can usually establish with some confidence. Other facts prove more difficult. The beginning of the French revolution, the number of deaths in the conquest of America, the number of slaves brought to the Western hemisphere, and the number of deaths in the slave trade--these facts prove more elusive. In theory, we have an infinite number of possible facts we can identify within the time and place of our historical story, but in practice we do not need them all to tell our story.
It is the story that defines the facts we need. If we tell the story of the first football game we need one set of facts, but if we tell the story of the first football quarterback's life we need different facts. If we want to understand the powerful attraction of sporting events for their fans, we need one set of facts, but if we want to know how universities pay for the sporting events that prove so popular with the fans, we need different facts. The story creates a hierarchy and a domain of facts.
The proto-story from which we start our search for facts changes as we learn more, as we accumulate facts relevant to our story. If our proto-story imagines that college sports succeeds because it produces a major source of revenue for the university, and we find that most college sports programs lose money, then we must change our proto-story because it does not match the facts. Instead, we must look for the explanation for the popularity of college athletics elsewhere, perhaps in the connection between these competitions and academic donations to the university. The revised proto-story, then, will require different facts.
Every story has a premise, but in developing stories about the past we have an obligation to logic. We cannot, for example, imagine that corruption in college spots is a phenomenon of this generation unless we have determined that previous generations were pure in their pursuit of athletic success. In every historical study, present-mindedness is always a challenge. We may think that what we believe is what others in the past believed. If we think it inappropriate to ask alumni to pay for the personal expenses of student-athletes, we may misunderstand the behavior of people in the early 1900s for whom such behavior was not only normal but expected. Our stories must recognize that the expectations of previous generations may not match our frame of reference today. That difference, too, becomes a fact.
When we evaluate a historical work--an article, a paper, or a book--we generally begin with the author's story and we assess the success of that story by how well it matches and uses facts, how well it persuades us that the logic of its argument is sound, and how strong its evidence sustains its story. If an author writes a story about the corruption of college sports (a common and frequent theme) based on confidential interviews with unnamed players and coaches, we may not have much confidence in the story. If the author writes a similar story based on court cases, financial records, and interviews with named witnesses, (evidence we can verify) we will have much higher confidence in the story.
Good historical stories have a point of view, a purpose, and a solid base of fact and evidence. A good historical story explains something that we do not understand or that we have previously misunderstood. A good historical story persuades us by the logic of its argument and by the quality of its facts.
Generations, Tools, and Projects
History's stories change over time. We do history not so much to understand the past as to clarify the present. Each of us lives but a short historical time. We make decisions about our lives based on the experience and information that we can acquire up to the moment we must make the decision. Rarely do we have the opportunity to remain aloof and uninvolved until we are old and wise from the experience of observation. Instead, we look to stories of the past to provide us with the vicarious experience that gives us the wisdom and perspective to make better decisions today.
As a result, history's stories speak to different issues at different times. Although history itself, the occurence of past events, never changes, what we need to learn by studying that history changes. When we worried about our place in the international community, we studied diplomatic history to learn about the formal conduct of relationships among nations. When we needed to understand trade and commerce, we studied economic history. When we worried about the social structure of our society, we studied issues of race, class, and gender. Each generation must address the challenges of its time by revisiting the past for experience that speaks to the present. This is why historians reinterpret major events (the civil war, the conquest and colonization of America, the fall of Rome, the rise of China). Sometimes we find new facts when we revisit the past because we now need to know different things and so find different information that did not matter before. The facts and evidence needed to understand diplomatic history may not matter as much for the study of social conflict, a topic requiring different facts and evidence.
Each generation speaks to its own problems, its sense of opportunity now and in the future. Its historians will seek those stories from the past that offer an opportunity to acquire needed vicarious experience to meet today's challenges.
Sometimes, of course, history helps us understand that our moment, our challenges, and our opportunities are not as unique as we imagine them to be. It is characteristic of human nature that we want to believe that we live in special times. That our moment of history is significant and unusual and that our problems are particularly important. This may be true, but in most cases it is not. Humans have experienced much in recorded history, and often what appears new is but a recurrence of things done before.
Sports history is particularly prone to this misconception. Sports fans, by the very nature of the game (it has no past only the current season matters), rarely look beyond yesterday to understand today. They imagine that the challenges of college sports are, today, far greater than at any time in the past, without knowing the past. When someone looks at this past, of course, today's story appears remarkably similar in many ways to yesterday's. Although history never repeats itself exactly, it is nonetheless a continuous process. Today's version of a continuing process is best understood when we know more than the surface events of the current scandal, crisis, or triumph. For sports people, this present mindedness conflicts with what appears to be a remarkable interest in the history of their sport, or the history of their university's sports program. The web sites of every university are filled with chronologies of the institution's glorious past. Yet this retrospective enthusiasm for past greats and past triumphs is usually very selective, focused on elements in this past that reinforce today's agenda. Sports history of this type looks not to the past of sports to understand today's issues but to the past of sports to help glorify today's anticipated triumphs.
Historians use a wide range of tools in their work. These include reference works of statistical compilations or documentary collections, dictionaries, and general histories, but in all cases historians use the materials left by the past. These materials vary in quality and scope, completeness, and relevance, and historians use a careful methodology to validate documents, detect false information, compare statistics, and assess the completeness of information. Because history is an accessible discipline, many people think they are historians, but they underestimate the work involved.
If history is an exercise in imagination and creativity it is also an artisan craft. Historians, like other builders of complex things, must have a design, a plan, appropriate materials, and a set of tools. They must use the right materials for the right purpose, they must follow a logical design. The plan is of course a project, one designed to match the tools and resources available.
A mason who simply shows up with any kind of brick and begins to lay brick in hopes of making a good wall will end up with an ugly unstable structure. A true artisan will have a design for the wall, a plan for its construction, and a list of the type and quantities of brick and mortar required. The mason's plan will specify the sequence of actions required to construct the wall. Our mason may well be creative and design a beautiful wall, with curves and decorations, but if the mason as artisan does not have the materials to build the wall or builds it with inappropriate materials, then the design will not produce a quality wall, but a false and weak structure.
The same holds for the historian. Historians can imagine a beautiful historical story, but if they do not do the artisan work required to design, plan, and build that story, the resulting history will be weak, unpersuasive, and false. Much of what historians do in their training and in their work is artisan craft; finding sources, constructing arguments, and testing them against the available information for validity and logic. When we watch the master bricklayer at work building a wall, it appears effortless, natural, and the result admirable. When we read the master historian's work we see what also looks effortless, natural, and admirable. If we, as amateurs, try to build a brick wall, we immediately discover that there is much about bricklaying we do not know, there are skills we have not learned, and there are tools we cannot use. If we rush to do a historical project without a clear understanding of what the project requires in the way of tools and training, we too will find the task a challenge and the result unsatisfactory.
Questions for starting the discussion: