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20.07.01 White, Howard Ray, “How to Study History,” (transcript of Episode 3 of White’s 2003 TV show)

How to Study History

A Essay by Howard Ray White, 2003

Opening Commentary

This Essay by Howard Ray White was presented by him as an episode on his 29-minute television show “True American History,” a show sent weekly to cable television customers in Charlotte, North Carolina.  The following is a transcript of an episode presentation presented in 2003, titled, “How to Study History.”  Numerous charts were presented during the presentation and these are shown below as they appeared in support of White’s commentary before the camera.  The television presentation begins now.

“As I have studied American History over the past 10 years, with a focus on 1763 to 1885, I have come to appreciate the importance of numerous study rules.  I have found these rules essential in making sense of our history.  And making sense is important.  Otherwise history becomes just a maze of meaningless and dry facts and dates.  So here goes.  Just sit back, watch and listen as I present one chart at a time and describe ‘How to Study History’.”

Chart 1 — Live it!

  • To make sense of history you have to live it.  Ignore relevance to today’s knowledge and today’s issues, mentally transport yourself back in time and just live it.  Biographies will help.
  • I mentally transport myself to the time period being studied, to take on the life of those people, for only then can I truly understand history from their perspective.

Commentary — “Biographies are an essential ingredient in any study plan that strives to “Live it.”  Here are the eight biographies that have meant the most to me:

  • Andrew Jackson by Marquis James (1938)
  • Sam Houston by Marquis James (1929)
  • Jefferson Davis by Hudson Strode (3 volumes, 1955, 1959, 1964)
  • Charles Sumner by David Donald (2 volumes, 1960, 1970)
  • Thaddeus Stevens by Richard Current (1942)
  • Stephen Douglas by Robert Johannsen (1973)
  • Abraham Lincoln by Carl Sandburg (6 volumes, 1926-1936)
  • Abraham Lincoln by David Donald (1995)”

Chart 2 — The Right Name

  • To understand an issue you have to call it by the right name.
  • It is important to name political movements for what activists claimed they were for; never what they claimed they were against.

Commentary “I follow the rule of Confucius, the great Chinese teacher, who 2,500 years ago taught his students, “To understand an issue you have to call it by the right name.”  Confucius understood that the study of an issue should be directed at understanding it and thereafter applying the “right name” so that confusion over that particular issue no longer complicated the study of subsequent issues.  This rule of Confucius, perhaps more than any other study principle, empowers Bloodstains with immense understanding, and will provide the same benefit in future episodes of this TV program.

“I never name a movement, “Anti-something.”  It is important to name a political movement for what Activists claimed they were for, never for what they claimed they were against.  Accordingly, the three different political movements that are normally grouped under the single term, “Anti-Slavery,” I rename individually as “Exclusionism”, “Deportationism”, and “Abolitionism”.  We will find terminology such as this most useful and I will speak often of these things in future episodes of this television show.”

Chart 3 — Chronology, Context, etc.

  • Meaning can only be found in the context of time, place and situation.
  • So pay close attention to chronology, place and available knowledge.

Commentary — “You should find my emphasis on these issues to be a familiar concern.  Politicians today often complain of being quoted out of context.  But it was much worse 150 years ago.  During the 23 years, starting in 1854 with the birth of the Republican Party and the start of Bleeding Kansas, and ending in 1877 with the withdrawal of Federal troops from the conquered Confederacy, political attitudes and events were changing so rapidly that close attention to chronology, place and available knowledge is essential to understanding that history.”

Chart 4 — Actions and Reactions

  • Examine actions and reactions.
  • Most political activities are reactions to competitive political activities.
  • Primarily look at actions, not words, because politicians often claim to advocate a certain policy to win votes, but make no effort to implement that policy once elected.

Commentary — “Always remember, most political activity is in reaction to other political activity.  In studying history, look for understanding of the give and take of political tugs.”

Chart 5 — Judge the Means

  • The end does not justify the means.
  • Focus on the means.
  • History is a process, not an outcome.

Commentary — “The end does not justify the means.  Period.  End of story.  So you must set aside the ends while you focus on the means.  Study history is a process and judge it accordingly.”

Chart 6 — Ignore “What-If” Scenarios

  • Do not be drawn into “what-if” discussions.  They are only fantasies.
  • No one knows how history would have evolved if a major issue had been decided differently.
  • You cannot judge history against an alternative scenario, which never happened.  You must judge history against broad, eternal moral standards.

Commentary — “I had lunch with Tommy Tomlinson of our local newspaper, the “Charlotte Observer,” this summer.  We talked about my book, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed, which he is reading, and some of the issues involving the truthful telling of American history.  When discussing what really happened, we were in agreement.  When speculating on what might have been the outcome, had the Federals failed to conquer the Confederacy, our views were quite different.  But who cares?  It may be fun, but it is fruitless for the student of history to debate ‘what if’.”

Chart 7 — The Victors Write the Histories

  • Remember, the victors write the histories of political and military conquests.
  • So you must search hard for the writings of the defeated.

Commentary — “I have searched long and hard to uncover many important aspects of our history from 1854 to 1877.  You will have to do the same.  Of course, readers of my book will find their discovery much easier, as will regular viewers of this Television program.”

Chart 8 — Land, Land, Land

  • The three major prizes sought through war are land, land and land.
  • Subordinate prizes include captives, treasure, tribute and spoils.
  • If anyone ever tells you that a major war was once started over the price of imported tea, do not believe it.
  • If anyone ever tells you that a major war was once started to force the other side to stop using slave labor, be very suspicious of the claim.

Commentary — “Let me show you again the map of the United States and the Confederate States when Abe Lincoln proclaimed the Federal Invasion.  What do you see?  I see land, land and land.”

[The referenced map of Republican-controlled states and Democrat-controlled states, as of 1861, showed that by far the most land was under the control of the Democratic Party, from Delaware, to Maryland, to Kentucky, to Missouri, southward and out to Texas.  In 1861, the Pacific states did not play a very important role in the Republican military campaign against the Democrat-controlled states.  This map shows how important it was to the Republican Party to take back the seceded states and the Democrat-controlled states that opposed the military invasion campaign.  The campaign was about land, land and land.]

Chart 9 — Scientific Rigor

  • Apply scientific rigor as you study history.
  • Validate important information.
  • Investigate motives and clues.
  • Identify who controls the money and the land?
  • Be like Sherlock Holmes.

Commentary — “Scientific rigor is as natural to me as having breakfast in the morning.  As a trained chemical engineer, I always apply scientific principles of truth-finding whatever issue I am investigating.  I am not other-directed.  I am self-directed.  Being politically correct is like putting your head in the sand.  For centuries it was not politically correct to claim that the earth was round, or that it revolved around the sun.  Anyway, I have never cared much about how many fairies can dance on the head of a pin.”

Chart 10 — Don’t be a Monkey

  • Monkey see and monkey do.
  • Monkey be politically correct, too.
  • You are a human with a mind of your own.
  • Use it!

Commentary — “This jingle is related to being a good scientific investigator when studying history.  So don’t be a monkey.  Be yourself.”

Chart 11 — Scientifically Correct Truth

  • Choose scientifically correct truth over what is alleged to be “politically correct truth.”

Commentary — “I suppose I want to drive this point home, even if I am accused of repeating myself.”

Chart 12 — Academia is Biased

  • Far too many teachers and professors in American academia are biased toward being “politically correct.”
  • Their most frequent sin is the sin of omission.
  • You have to uncover the stones to discover the history they leave covered up.

Commentary — ”O. K.  Here lies the challenge.  In elementary school we are expected to learn elementary history.  In high school we are expected to gain a solid grounding in basic history.  In college, if history is our major, we are supposed to become experts in selected eras of human history.  But, when it comes to American history, especially from 1854 to 1877, very few students ever learn true history.  Those that do dig it out for themselves or are fortunate enough to have a counter-culture teacher.

“I am a chemical engineer, retired.  I did not major in history in college.  I am not a member of academia.  And believe it or not, that is a distinct advantage.  Fortunately for you, someone from outside of academia presents this television program.”

Chart 13 — Stones and Snakes

  • Turn the stones over!
  • That’s where the snakes are.

Commentary — “I love this one.  Yep!  Turn the stones over.  That’s where the snakes are.  Need I say more?”

Chart 14 — Character, Character, Character

  • Pay close attention to the character of political leaders, including even personal family relations.
  • That is why biographies are important study tools.

Commentary — “I have already shown you my most useful biographies.  History is a process, and the character of important political leaders tells us much about that process.  Compare the character traits of Jeff Davis and his wife Varina to the character traits of Abe Lincoln and his wife Mary.  That is instructive.  Judge the character traits of Charles Sumner and Thad Stevens.”

Chart 15 — Be Suspicious of Lawyers

  • There are far too may lawyers in American politics.
  • That is true today and was true in 1861.
  • Be suspicious of them.

Commentary — “I am not a lawyer.  My older son is an electrical engineer and his wife is a physician.  My younger son is a budding businessman.  All four of their grandparents were teachers.  There are no lawyers in my family.  I rather like that.”

Chart 16 — Understand Logical Fallacies

  • Understand the classic debating techniques of the political demagogue and be not deceived by them.
  • Pay close attention to Ambiguity, Quoting out of Context, One-Sidedness, Red Herring, Straw Man and dozens more.
  • Study the science of logical fallacies, two resources follow:
  • by Gary N. Curtis
  • Historians’ Fallacies by David Fischer.

Commentary — “Here is David Fischer’s book, Historians’ Fallacies, Toward a Logic of Historical Thought.  [White held the book up to the camera]  Logic and the study of logical fallacies goes back to Aristotle, who wrote, among other things, ‘What is called Wisdom is concerned with primary concerns.’  I suppose minor concerns a not prone to contribute to the building of wisdom.  Makes sense, I suppose.  But few folks care to wade through all that.  Perhaps the most important message I can deliver to you today is that good old fashion common sense will serve you well when evaluating the actions and rhetoric of others, including the writings of historians.

“On the other hand, I owe you a bit of teaching from this study, Historians’ Fallacies.  I will extract the essence of Chapter 1, which concerns fallacies historians often succumb to when organizing their writings, in this case with regard to framing the question that is addressed.”

Chart 17 — Historians’ Fallacies – Question Framing

1.   No Question – Just gathering facts without any notion of utility.

Commentary — “Here the writing is a vast compilation of facts, often unrelated, which cannot be used by the reader to draw any conclusions.  Work of that nature is fallacious.”

2.  Too Many Questions – Makes answering impractical.

Commentary — “At the opposite end.  If the writing is directed at answering many questions, the reader becomes too confused by the choices, that no meaningful conclusions are obtainable.  Work of that nature is fallacious.”

3.   This or That Questions – Allowing a choice between two answers when others may be better.

Commentary — “When a writer directs the reader to choose between two answers, he is likely committing a fallacy.  Most often, many possible answers should be considered in the analysis.  Few situations are merely black or white.”

4.   Questions that are Unanswerable through Experience – Such as “Why?” questions. 

Commentary — “I emphasize that I have written my book, Bloodstains, to enable you to live it so that you may answer for yourself the “Why?” question.  Specifically, “What were the causes of the War Between the States?”  If I answered the “Why?” question myself, I would probably be considered by most to be committing a fallacy.  I don’t do that.  I empower you to answer it for yourself.”

5.   Fictional Questions – “What if” history turned our differently.

Commentary — “I have already mentioned my lunch with Tommy Tomlinson.  It is best to avoid ‘What if’ questions unless you are just into entertaining conversation.  ‘What if’ does not contribute to the understanding of history.”

6.   What to name it Questions – Diverting attention toward merely what name should apply.

Commentary — “Sometimes whole historical works are aimed at debating what some historical activity should be named.  Semantics can be a useful consideration, such as my treatment of the term “Anti-Slavery,” but don’t become embroiled in excessive debate over semantics.”

Commentary — “The next chart presents fallacies 7 through 11.  These are more minor and more specialized that the previous 6, so I will just mention them without much commentary.  Here we go:

Chart 18 — Historians’ Fallacies – Question Framing.

7.     Declarations pretending to be Questions – Omits questions’ open end, making it self-answered.

8.     B reconstructing A’s Question – One historian rethinking another’s study, whose question may have actually been fallacious in the first place.

9.     Pretense of a choice between two ideas that mean the same thing – a taunt.

10.   Contradictory Questions – It is false by definition and contradicts itself.

11.   Questions for others to Answer – Historian A framing a question for another branch of academia to answer.

Commentary — “Now that you have give thought to historians’ fallacies, you should be armed with the knowledge to — Next chart please.  Whamo!”

Chart 19 — Unmask the Demagogues.

  • Unmask the political demagogue and judge him harshly.

Commentary — “Now lets look at the questions that are answerable in my book series.”

Chart 20 — Questions Answerable by Reading My Book Series, Bloodstains . . .

  • “What were the causes of the War Between the States?”
  • “Who were the good guys and who were the bad guys?”
  • Many other questions become answerable to the reader’s satisfaction as well.

Commentary — “What is answerable by reading Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed?  Let me explain:

“The question upon which my book series was built is one that sought the understanding of ‘why’, but refused to answer ‘why’ succinctly.  Just as was my experience, the answering of the ‘why’ question is the task of the reader, to whom I have provided an epic empirical history, full of biography, through which he or she is able to ‘live it.’  The two most fundamental ‘why’ questions which the reader is empowered to answer for himself or herself are — ‘What were the causes of the War Between the States’ and, ‘Who were the good guys and who were the bad guys.’  Many other questions become answerable to the reader’s satisfaction.”

I now must close, and in doing so, leave you with this thought:

Chart 21 — Seek the Truth.

  • Seek the truth in every endeavor, for the truth shall set you free.

Goodbye, and see you next week.

Howard Ray White, Charlotte, North Carolina, Copyright by Howard Ray White, 2003