Why did we choose this topic? We think that knowing the past is an important thing – to understand what is happening and to prevent the “same” mistakes from the past. However, there is a slight problem in our knowledge of past. And that’s why we asked this question: ….. Real-life situation You might be thinking…why did they choose this topic? Isn’t it obvious that what we know really happened? Are they trying to show us some stupid conspiracy theories or what? So here comes the real life situation. It is no made-up situation because, unfortunately, it happened to me recently.
I was reading sources for my EE. The second source I read basically overthrew/contradicted my whole research question. I am writing about a ruler in medieval Japan who brought peace which lasted 250 years and how he accomplished this peace. As I read the second source, it stated that the one that actually established the peace was not this ruler, but the one before him. With this newfound information my whole EE practically fell apart. So, I had two contradictory sources and a load of questions: How it could be possible for such a contradicting sources to exist?
And how do we know which one is true and which one isn’t? Sources Okay, now let’s get back to our knowledge of past. Where do we get it from? Well, there are different sources that together help us gather our historical knowledge. We can categorize them into two groups: primary and secondary. Well, I hope you all know what primary and secondary sources are, but if you don’t let me say it really briefly. Primary sources are those that were created by people who witnessed the events that are under study and secondary are sources, which are build upon (analyze and interpret) primary ones.
Now, let’s try to make a list of the sources so that we can demonstrate how some of them can become unreliable. PrimarySecondary Diaries Journal/magazine article Pottery (physical stuff)History textbook for schools LettersBook about history InterviewsEncyclopedias SpeechesReviews Documents Photographs Now that we have a list of sources, we need to think about what could possibly affect them. Those can be all four of our tools of knowledge – perception, emotion, reason and language. Using these, we? ll show you how the sources can reflect the past not very accurately.
Let’s start with primary sources. What can affect them? Let’s start with written accounts and diaries. First, the writer must perceive the event. What can go wrong in perception? Well, each person perceives things selectively, according to what they expect to see, according to their emotions, culture, traditions and so on. Let’s imagine a soldier named Joe. After surviving a battle he writes a letter to his wife. I believe I do not have to mention that this letter will later become a primary source for us.
It consists of many emotional sentences about the death of John, Joe’s friend, who died during the battle and there is only little information about the battle itself and its outcomes. This shows us already, that Joe perceived very little from the battle, but instead concentrated on what was happening to his friend (which is natural, but for historians that are studying the battle rather unfortunate. However, Joe describes something from the battle. He says that their enemy‘s ranks consisted of thousands of soldiers compared to their barely thousand.
However, other sources from the same battle state, that the armies were equal in numbers. So, obviously, Joe exaggerated as people tend to under stress situations. But his wife will never know this bit of information Furthermore Joe writes that it was the enemy who actually provoked the battle, while source written by someone from the other side states that is was the exact opposite. So obviously nobody wants to admit to be the aggressor. This was just an example of how perception and reason can influence the given account of an event from the past. Now let’s watch a little video.
I hope you know the guy that will be show in it 😉 So, what can we say about some speeches of politicians or propagandistic films or pictures? These also count as primary sources, however I think it is obvious why they cannot be very reliable. Their purpose is to manipulate and distort the truth. For us, and for historians, sometimes it might be very hard to distinguish whether something is a propaganda and manipulation of facts or whether it is not. It is essential for the historians and us to be able to distinguish what is propaganda or manipulation and what is not.
Even though such sources contain manipulated information which is useless for historians who want to know the truth, they are still valuable since they help us understand the historical context of that time. Furthermore data and official documents can also contain manipulated information and that is even harder for us to see, because we tend to believe “official” things. To get back to our knowledge issue, knowledge of the past that we gain from primary sources can be inaccurate, since primary sources tend to be very subjective.
But there are plenty of orimary sources, which give us an objective and therefore probably accurate account of the past, such as photographs, data and official documents (if they are not manipulated). Excluding the fact that they can be misleading, without primary sources, we would be practically lost, since it is thanks to them that we have got at least some information about the past. Secondary sources: Now let’s move to secondary sources. The most widely “used” secondary source are historians and textbooks they write. Historians are very important for us, receivers of the knowledge.
Why? If we only had primary sources, we would be lost. First, they are sometimes very hard to understand (especially if they are in a language you don’t speak 🙂 and also there can be overwhelming number of them and we then might not be able to distinguish the important ones from the ones that contain no valuable information. That’s where historians come in handy. They gather the information, read through as many sources as possible, interpret the information included and then write books that should be understandable for us. But, there are several problems.
The first, maybe not the obvious one, is that historians do not always get all the information they need to give an account of a particular event. It’s like a puzzle. They have many pieces, but sometimes the pieces don’t fit together or there are some pieces are missing. Then they have to throw the odd ones out and they might find out that even more pieces are missing. Then they have to fill in the gaps themselves. This “filling in the gaps” can be very dangerous, especially if the historians are biased. Quite often historians are nationally biased.
They have been raised in one country along with its traditions and culture and therefore, even if they are trying their best, they are going to write the history from their country’s point of view. Another problem comes in understanding the primary sources. The main obstacle in this case is language, which might have been rather different at that time. As much as historians may try, the translation can almost never be perfect. Sometimes those are just minor mistakes that don’t matter, but in some cases, the translation might be fatal.
However, we will never know whether the translation was wrong or not. Furthermore, these sources can be further translated, so we basically get a translation of translation and the source can completely lose its original meaning. To conclude and get back to our question, even though (we hope) they are trying to be as objective as they can, historians can make mistakes in “filling the gaps”, in being nationally biased and in the translation of the sources. However, their role in our knowledge of past is essential, since they put all the pieces of information into a meaningful whole.
Now let’s look at us. We are the receivers of knowledge. Since our own knowledge of past is way more limited than the knowledge of historians, we are more prone to making wrong conclusions from primary sources. Because of this same factor, we might also overlook some vital points. Also, have you ever thought about checking whether a certain historian is telling the truth? Or did you just blindly believed everything he said, just because he has the title of historian? This is a typical ad hominem fallacy that we all can make.
Lastly, we, similarly as historians, are nationally biased, which also “clouds” our reasoning. Final Conclusion To conclude our presentation, we should now see that we know our past only to a certain extent. It depends on the reliability and amount of the primary and secondary sources that we have. We also need to be aware of the biases or drawbacks of the primary and secondary sources in order to distinguish the biased or manipulated sources. In the future, we might have a better knowledge of past, since new and new sources are discovered every day.
And, what do you think Jarka did with her EE sources? She was kinda hopeless at first, but then she decided to read the remaining sources. The rest, supported her research question (thankfully), so she could conclude (with almost 100 % certainty) which one was the one that was not true. ? Also, primary sources serve the purpose of the writer and were not written to become parts of textbooks in the future. P. S. do not have to reflect truth, but rather a ‘personal’ truth. Often we do not have written accounts from peasants and lower classes, simply because they didn? know how to write, didn? t consider it necessary, useful… CONCLUSION =our knowledge of past is in many cases not the same as the past itself, because it is based on human interpretation of why and how certain events happen = also, new evidence is constantly being found and it might completely change our view of what and why happened = also new technologies are invented =thus we can say that past is still alive and changing… = try to gather as much different sources as u can- compare them… do what historians do….