Should Historians Make “Judgements” About the Past in their Scholarship?

I’ve been thinking a lot about a recent conversation I had with a visitor about morality and judgement in historical interpretation. The visitor was very adamant about the historian’s obligation to objectivity when interpreting the past, but his definition of objectivity was, in my opinion, far too rigid. “We have no right to judge the people of the past and the decisions they make,” he said. “At one point 97% of scientists believed the earth was flat! They were wrong, but how were they supposed to know?” The historians of today, in his view, are too emotional. They are too focused on picking winners and losers and distinguishing between good and bad. People get too worked up about the past.

There is a grain of validity in his statements. The concept of “historical thinking” emphasizes the importance of understanding historical events from the perspective of the people at the time in which the event happened rather than from our perspective today. To understand why most scientists believed the world was flat requires an understanding of the scientific community’s knowledge of astronomy at that time. Who were the leading thinkers? What works of scholarship were they reading and producing? What sorts of assumptions did they make about the universe and its inner workings? Where did these scientists receive their education, and who funded their scientific research? What was the social, political, religious, and economic climate at that time? What ideologies did these scientists embrace; in other words, how did politics shape their understanding of how the world should work? And, equally important, what developments within the scientific community and the larger world led to the evolving view that the world is round?

In my opinion, however, it does not follow that historical thinking must be devoid of all judgement of the past. The flat-earth scientists were objectively wrong, after all. Historians can still offer a fair analysis of flat-earth theory while working under the understanding that such a theory is mistaken. Likewise, historians of topics like slavery, Indian removal, and genocide can offer thoughtful interpretations while making a judgement that those things are wrong.

Choices have consequences, both negative and positive. Understanding when, how, and why those choices came about is fundamental to historical interpretation. I believe assessing the consequences and making judgements about those choices is also part of the equation. One doesn’t need to look any further than their own family history to see the cracks of this “non-judgement” theory. Your own life is shaped by the decisions your ancestors made, the decisions that were made for them by others in power, and the worlds they lived in, with all the limits and possibilities that existed at a given time. You are a product of past decisions, and as such it is rational for you to make judgements about the decisions of your ancestors and what those decisions mean for your life today, just as your posterity will make judgements about your choices in life.

To avoid making any judgements whatsoever about the past–both negative AND positive–is, above all else, boring historical interpretation. The best studies make arguments and challenge me to think anew about my prior understanding of a given topic. But non-judgement also strives for an idea of objectivity that doesn’t exist. Prefect neutrality is a fiction. Claims of “bias” are meaningless most of the time because everyone has biases shaped by perception, experience, and education. When we acknowledge that all historians have their own biases, we can focus on the arguments they make rather than debating about whether the scholar is biased or not. I believe “fairness” in historical interpretation is a far better ideal to strive for than objectivity. I have my views and own experiences that shape how I interpret the past, and they shape the educational programs I create. I don’t claim to be fully free of bias, but I always strive to be fair in my interpretation and utilize historical thinking throughout the process. I think that’s all one can ask for in any sort of scholarly study or educational initiative. If I’m wrong in my interpretations and scholarship, I expect to be called out for it. 🙂

Cheers