How to Study History
A Essay by Howard Ray White, 2003
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!
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:
Chart 2 — The Right Name
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Commentary — “I suppose I want to drive this point home, even if I am accused of repeating myself.”
Chart 12 — Academia is Biased
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
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
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
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
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.
Commentary — “Now lets look at the questions that are answerable in my book series.”
Chart 20 — Questions Answerable by Reading My Book Series, Bloodstains . . .
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.
Goodbye, and see you next week.
Howard Ray White, Charlotte, North Carolina, Copyright by Howard Ray White, 2003