U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Checking Facts, Checking Meaning, and Checking Power

For a sizable number of people, the study of history is just historical fact-checking on steroids. Rather than the isolated fact-checking that journalists do for articles, or regular people maybe do in conversation, about historical matters, I have encountered students (and adults) who believe that in a classroom you do this on a grander scale—in accordance to the specific subject at hand (U.S. history, women’s history, African-American History, World history, European history, the History of The Reformation, etc.).  When you take one of these classes, at the end you should be able to answer all sorts of fact-based questions about dates, people, events, and places.  Historians teach you those facts, and you remember them. It’s common sense.

This is why “gotcha quizzes” on historical facts resonate widely. Sam Wineburg discussed, in 2011 after the release of 2010 NAEP test findings, the nature of the “surprising” results of these kinds of tests in general. Indeed, the first of these gotcha quizzes appeared in the 1917. Others were conducted in the 1943 and 1976. If Bernard Bailyn told us in 1976 that we should know these facts, and he was surprised in 1976 that we didn’t, then that was a problem. Never mind the problematic nature of these tests, as is evident to most historians and outlined by Wineburg (bell curves, small bits of decontextualized information, tricky for sake of discrimination, etc.). (And Wineburg, for the record, does not believe today’s students know fewer historical facts than past generations.) We don’t have our facts straight, we’re ignorant of history. These perennial quizzes simply remind us of our duty. We must be faithful to the facts—however boring, decontextualized, and assessed according curves.

Of course this view of “the facts” most often has a kind of traditionalist cast to it. That tradition usually corresponds with white supremacy, or at the very least ignores people of color. That tradition also ignores women, gender, and sexuality. The kind of historical literacy represented in those gotcha quizzes most often correlates with traditional views of political history. In many ways this view of the facts ignores a great deal of historical research (i.e. on social and cultural history) conducted since the 1950s.

Getting the facts straight, whether traditional or otherwise, is for some the be-all/end-all of good historical thinking. This reductionist view of history is, sadly, evergreen. One reason for the recurrence is good old American practicality. We like history to be a well-tended, non-dusty bin from which we can withdraw factual nuggets, as needed. When we need to fix a politician’s narrative hole, we can grab a fact from the bin. Another reason for the seasonal recurrence of this view of history is science. Many want history to be a stable archive of facts, even when we puzzle over arrangement. Those facts must be solid for objective evaluation to occur. Knowledge of facts solidifies history as a discipline of precision. Facts can be checked, and precisely determined to be correct or incorrect. Facts are foundational. Historians study real historical facts in order to provide stable, orderly narratives from which we can all draw conclusions about the present. Our present reality derives from that past reality.

Ron Suskind (from the “About” page on his website).

But, as an unnamed official from the former George W. Bush administration once reflected—in a now-famous 2004 NYT article by Ron Suskind, and to the chagrin and horror of many—this turns history and the history profession into a kind of “reality-based community.”[1] The study of reality, however close or distant in the past, consigns us to judiciously studying what was done, and by whom, when, where, and maybe why. Meanwhile the world rolls on, whether by faith or ideology, creating new realities and new meanings. We historians, to some, simply follow that, picking up its leavings, however clean, dirty, misshapen, beautiful, rational, emotional, or repulsive. We are merely just another reality-(or fact-)based community.

But what’s lost on those who see the study of history in this reductionist, either/or fashion is how historians also check meaning. The “meaning-checking” function of history opens up a plurality of potential inquiries and requires a robust, diverse population of historians. When historians evaluate for meaning, value, and even morals, they help bridge the past-present divide. I have outlined before why I think the term ‘value’ is helpful in relation to defenses of the humanities and liberal arts. I hold to the arguments in that essay. Here is an excerpt from its core (apologies for this self-reference):

To defend the liberal arts and humanities, we must emphasize that it is only those areas of study that recognize, create, preserve, assess, and revise the ways we make meaning, worth, and significance. Beyond objects of mere utility for survival, it is in the liberal arts and humanities that the value of all other commodities are assessed and recognized.

In as much as “values” in the American sense are accepted or judged, they are determined in a web of meaning created, preserved, and interpreted by those who think about the humanities and liberal arts. It is a historical mind, or historical thinking, that determines the preservation and recognition of old values, and helps translate them for the present. …

Humanistic thinkers and liberal arts majors are value-givers, value maximizers, and value-seekers. They create, enhance, give, and make value.

These intersections of value, I think, might help bridge the gap between our humanistic ideals and our corporate needs.

Today, however, I also think that ‘meaning’ deserves more articulation in relation to history in particular.

Explorations by historians of meaning are rooted in the quest for understanding ‘why’ something happened. They use narratives and stories to make sense, or meaning, of large collections of facts. And since meaning is relative to the reader, unique perspectives on that meaning help hold the interest of certain kinds of readers. Those perspectives cannot, by necessity, include all the seemingly relevant facts. The power of stories rests on readability, and readability is linked to length, thesis, attention span, distraction, concentration, language, style, etc. The form of the story matters as much as, and perhaps more than, the content. But content is where select facts are arrayed. The question of whether a story fits in the genre of history rests not only on the “correctness” of those facts, but the number of those facts that comprise the content. For the sake of a conclusion, let’s just say that a majority, or more than fifty percent, of the content must rest on historical facts. That still leaves a lot of room for reflection on why some things happened. There is ample space for meaning making, meaning-checking, and making sense of the facts presented.

Questions about ‘why’ involve good historical thinking. The latter is, of course, just critical thinking applied to questions of history (or vice versa). Due to Wineburg’s influence, I have become a strong proponent of the explicit teaching of historical thinking concepts, both in the classroom and in our public engagements. As a mnemonic, I’ve created a list of a dozen concepts that I believe catalyze people to ask deeper questions about the makeup, and meaning, of historical narratives. The notion of facts is intertwined with these concepts, but pushes the boundaries of history, as a discipline, in relation to philosophy, literature, and the social sciences.

In the public sphere, quality historical work deals with meaning. The best Twitter threads by our most engaged historians—people like Kevin Kruse, Keisha N. Blain, Heather Cox Richardson, Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, Guy Emerson Mount, David Walsh, Kevin Gannon, and others—rests on their ability to do more than just fact-check current history-based political assertions. Kruse, Richardson, and others seek to modify the way that error-filled narratives change the meaning of the past in relation to the present. They correct errors of fact, but also of interpretation, selection, arrangement, and meaning. These threads move discourse, about the past and present, toward more honest thinking.

What Suskind’s anonymous official grasped was that power is shaped by meaning, not facts. It’s not the Enlightenment principle of empiricism that empowers or inspires people. Meaningful stories—whether based on facts or not—move people into action. People are led into movement by their ideals. Some of those ideals are enlightened and humanistic. Some are manipulative, used by those hungry for power and with narrow views of security. The historian who operates in the realm of meaning helps their reader cross bridges from the past into the present. Those stories—not the facts of history—can be checked for meaning by other historians. Historians help shape present-day power when they do this. When they ask why facts are being manipulated and arranged, by politicians or other narrow-minded ideologues, they speak to a broader range of today’s citizens about meaning.

I am not at all asserting that facts do not matter. Let me underscore that being precise and accurate with facts is crucially important. The facts must always be relevant, properly presented, and verifiable. But meaning and value must be assessed, in a democracy populated with diverse peoples, by a diverse cast of characters. This effort must be aided by a range of historians, each with different backgrounds and expertise. We need all kinds of interpretations of meaning to properly engage the widest sense of truth about the past and present status of the United States.

When historians focus on meaning, even as they utilize facts, they create histories that others crave. They also reinforce the notion of a dynamic, relevant, and attractive profession that is intimately connected with the work of all humanists. Historians become, in the best way possible, present-day political actors. They are not acting as ideologues who nefariously desire that particular interests be forwarded. Rather, while speaking to those in power, they are also speaking on behalf of the human condition. They are telling meaningful stories about certain truths to the powerful. Historians then act as checks power, but with rectified intentions.

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[1] The unnamed official, with whom Suskind spoke in 2002, was later thought to be Karl Rove, though Rove denies the attribution and Suskind never identified Rove as the source (more at this 2017 article link). The phrase now even has its own Wikipedia article. Read the entire Suskind article if you want to relive, or learn, some of the ideological and intellectual horrors of the Bush presidency. Here: Ron Suskind, “Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush,” The New York Times, October 17, 2004.

6 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. A really terrific post, Tim, and it resonates with a lot of our missions and goals in the diverse field of public history. Many visitors begin their journey at a site/museum/archive/library with “Is it true…?” and that gives us a great door to walk through, in terms of presenting multiple perspectives and primary sources. Thanks for writing.

    • Thanks Sara. What I love about museums, in terms of the progression from bare “factness” and truth/falsity (i.e., artifacts), is apprehension of tangible “thingness.” Seeing a historical “fact” in three dimensions allows, if/when prompted, for questioning about how it was made, and why, and by whom. And then there are questions about adaptability and reappropriation. Meaningfulness of things/artifacts is automatically perspectival in terms of the user/owner of the thing. Things as tools, moreover, add power to the owner or user. Things used together, in sequence or concurrently, allow for incremental additions and surplus power/value. The social appropriation of things then is tied to a larger meaningfulness, very often linked to political power. We can do so much with smartly-managed museums/libraries/archives in terms of meaning-making and the checking of meaning, and power.

  2. Interesting points, Tim. If ever I encounter the perspective that history should be “objective” and only about “facts,” I try to frame this as a perspective based on a flawed, nineteenth-century mindset that regards the discipline of history as a science and not an art form. As I was reading your post, I was reminded of a 2006 op-ed written by Mary Beth Norton that I read in grad school. https://www.nytimes.com/2006/07/02/opinion/02norton.html Norton was grappling with an education law passed by the Florida state legislature stating that history should be fact-based, and not constructed. The objections raised by Norton are similar to the ones you’ve articulated here. And since Norton was talking about a Republican state legislature, I thought I might broach these questions…is it possible that most of the folks who want a purely “fact-based” history, divorced from analysis, interpretation, meaning, value, etc, inhabit the political right? That would be my gut feeling. What else explains the political right’s propensity, born out by the actions of countless state legislatures in Wisconsin, Kansas, North Carolina, and many other states, to defund public universities and in particular, humanities departments under the dubious assumptions that we’re all propagandizing our students and leading them down an “impractical” path? Yes, there are plenty of left-of-center critiques of academia, but let’s assume for a moment that indeed, it is mostly conservatives who desire a history course dominated by facts, and facts alone. Then the question is why? I suspect it has to do with the right’s fear that even sound, fact-based analysis and interpretation will inevitably lead to a critique of tradition, patriotism, racism, inequality, and established institutions they hold dear (organized religion, the business community, and the military). My apologies if I’ve taken this in a direction you did not intend, but I do believe these issues are related to your post.

    • Steve: Thanks for that link to the Mary Beth Norton op-ed. Will read.

      On the politics of facts and facts-based history, I think there are some lefties who want to militantly ignore and move beyond history. They want a complete break, or escape, from past baggage. That baggage inhibits the movement toward new utopias. But I would need to think more about concrete examples of how utopian-left movements want to deal with artifacts, facts, interpretations, and the meaning of remnants from the past. For instance, how did Russian Communists deal with artifacts from czars? My off-hand memory is that they destroyed the facts in order to avoid dealing with the meaning of that history for the present nation. – TL

  3. Here’s an approach I’ve used before: write a random assemblage of historical facts on the board about some era/topic, and say to students, “Okay, so now you know the history of ___, right?” The discussion inevitably turns to questions of meaning. Then it’s time for the intervention that distinguishes between opinion v. interpretation. That is, opinion may or may not be grounded in fact and may have no rational basis behind it. History, as a discipline, is not the realm of opinion. Instead, history is an empirical discipline that must offer the most reasonably arguable possible interpretation of available facts (with “facts” themselves having been established by empirical processes). That then leads to a discussion of both selection and the various tools available for interpretation (as well as the tools that are off the table: appeals to providence, the deus ex machina of “Ancient Aliens,” etc.)

    Honestly, if I can get my students to grasp the difference between “opinion” and “interpretation,” I will feel like I’m winning at life. Some do every semester. But in no semester have I had all students understand this crucial distinction.

    • Sorry for the long delay on replying. It’s been a busier-than-expected day.

      I agree that it’s always worth underscoring, with students, the necessity of selection, arrangement, and interpretation—in any way possible. Your exercise, then, is most worthy. I discuss something like it in my “What is history?” intro lecture. But I hadn’t, yet, demonstrated it on the board. I’ll ponder how to do that in an integrated way.

      In the post above, I was also talking about populations beyond students. How do we continually reinforce with adults the need, in any historical presentation, to get at meaning and interpretation—without also leaving them on the sad grounds of mere opinion?

      I usually work, with my students, on getting them to understand that you need to know 3-5 books on one subject before you can start feeling that you have an authoritative sense of facts, evidence, interpretation, and meaning. In sum, you need a diverse basis of historical knowledge to know what you don’t know. That’s my goal: teaching humility in history by reminding them that study and reading demonstrate your gaps. But (non-historian) adults are too busy, too dismissive, and desirous of useful facts and nuggets.

      How do we get those adults to appreciate the fact the “meaning-checking” is a necessity—that historians (many) are needed to help them be sure that their meaning, their interpretation, is plausible? I guess we just have to show them contradictory or puzzling-but-relevant facts, and ask what they make of them. This, I suppose, would help them to see that their opinion of how facts go together must also abide by certain rules (e.g. thoroughness, empiricism, plausibility, etc.) – TL

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S-USIH Comment Policy

We ask that those who participate in the discussions generated in the Comments section do so with the same decorum as they would in any other academic setting or context. Since the USIH bloggers write under our real names, we would prefer that our commenters also identify themselves by their real name. As our primary goal is to stimulate and engage in fruitful and productive discussion, ad hominem attacks (personal or professional), unnecessary insults, and/or mean-spiritedness have no place in the USIH Blog’s Comments section. Therefore, we reserve the right to remove any comments that contain any of the above and/or are not intended to further the discussion of the topic of the post. We welcome suggestions for corrections to any of our posts. As the official blog of the Society of US Intellectual History, we hope to foster a diverse community of scholars and readers who engage with one another in discussions of US intellectual history, broadly understood.