Today we’ll start a new series featuring reflections by students in Chris Gehrz’s course HIS354 Modern Europe, an upper-division survey of European history since 1750. As part of the course, students write weekly reflections — sometimes in response to assigned readings, other times in preparation for a discussion, and other times to help them think through a question asked in class.
First up, history and ideology. Recently in Modern Europe students read T. S. Ashton’s famous rebuttal to the long-prevailing notion that industrialization had a profoundly negative effect on the standard of living of British workers. We considered the influence of liberalism on Ashton and Marxism on his critics. In their journal for the week, some students then considered whether historians could (or should) escape the influence of ideology, identifying what they saw as their own biases in the processes.
One of several excellent responses to those questions came from History/Social Studies Education major Annie Berglund (’14). Annie was previously featured on AC 2nd being interviewed about her summer internship at the American Swedish Institute.
It is nearly, and I would argue definitely, impossible for historians to avoid bias in their accounts. With the discipline of historiography, in which a historian researches the way that different generations encounter and interpret the past, we are better able to understand the biases occurring over time. The article we read from T.S. Ashton is a form of historiography that critiques and dialogues about the various historical interpretations that came before him. But just as ideologically biased as Engels and Marx were in their conflict historical analysis, Ashton is also a product of his own time. His consensus, revisionist history, born during the years of the Cold War, is its own form of historical interpretation. Historiography is a useful tool for understanding historians before us, since it is also reveals that each generation of new historical analysis has its own biases and emphases that it brings to the table. It is impossible for someone to completely remove themselves from the context in which they live in order to write bias free. How historians find evidence (whether quantitative or qualitative) and use sources (by picking some and omitting others) are ways in which historians continually view history through their own perspective.
I know that when I am encountering history, I come with my own biases, as well. It is hard for me to take away my identity in my female gender, Christian religion, and tendency to focus on social history when approaching topics. As a Christian historian, the morals and beliefs that I associate with my faith can provide bias to my interpretation of history. The way I approach social justice issues, like prostitution, slavery, and women’s rights, are affected by my religious worldview. The fact that I see history as God’s history, in which his hands are seen continually in different events, accounts, and transformations, is going to make my analysis of topics different from secular points of view. As a feminist and lover of social history, I tend to listen for voices of common people as more substantial contributions to my historical narrative. A social historical approach to labor, economics, politics, and other aspects of history contributes to my bad habit of glazing over political debates, governmental procedures, and systematic changes. I look for the stories and experiences of women, children, immigrants, and other voices that I think are oftentimes overshadowed. Even this passion for social history is a product of changing generations of historians. Many over the past decades have been trending toward social history; my interest, in part, may come from this new trend. Because of this bias, I lack a balanced approach to historical analysis that includes the forms of evidence that other kinds of historians use. I automatically, subconsciously pick and choose what I want to emphasize more. These factors of who I am and how I conduct history influence my understanding of the past, which can be seen through the passions that drive me to emphasize certain topics over others. Historians are products of their time periods, and as such they will view things through lenses that are birthed out of the experiences of their culture and concerns.
– Annie Berglund