Tag: History

Assassin’s Creed and Historical Fidelity

What liberties should video games take with the historical record and who gets to decide? Or, as some of the people interviewed in “Are Video Games like Assassin’s Creed Rewriting History?” suggest, is there no meaningful historical record beyond the interpretations that we put forward?

A commonplace—“History is no longer a set of disputable, footnoted facts that lead slowly but inexorably to an authoritative version. It’s a set of facts surrounded by an even larger set of opinions and interpretations”—undergirds the next step, stated by Ubisoft’s Alex Hutchinson:

I think anyone who argues that history is objective or static is very confused…. I don’t think that there’s a single event that hasn’t gone through multiple interpretations or iterations in terms of what people believe even happened, let alone what was important about it, or what led up to it or what followed it

Rather than seeing this as license to do with the past as you will, I would like to see this as reinforcing the moral and ethical dimension of history. Earlier in article the authors points out

the proliferation of all media, especially the digital kind, has made it easier to propagate lies for political purposes: Think of the invented scandal of Barak Obama’s birth certificate or the “inside job” claims around 9/11 and the Newtown, Conn., shootings. Hence our collective nervousness about what’s supposed to be true, and who gets to say so.

That’s absolutely right. History is always political. That politics is perhaps less a question of lies and truths than a question of choices and goals. Why were particular events chosen as relevant? Which events were deemed insignificant, and why? What pieces of the historical record were considered evidence? Why were certain events, aspects, details, words, etc. placed in a series of other relevant events, perhaps implying a cause-and-effect relationship?

And what is the relationship between the form of representation—e.g., scholarly book or article, historical fiction, movie, novel, TV show, RPG or MMORPG game—and the standards to which that form should be held? For more on these questions, see Elly Truit’s Medieval Robots and her many posts on medievalisms.

(Thanks to my colleague Brett Mulligan for pointing out this article.)

History as a Career, ca. 1960

In 1961 the American Historical Association published a short guide for undergraduates, History as a Career. To Undergraduates Choosing A Profession. The pamphlet opens:

In former centuries parents chose spouses and professions for their children. Today’s men and women can select their own. Chances are that another person will make at least half the decision for you when you select a spouse. In deciding upon a profession, as at few times in your life, you can stand alone.
This brochure is designed to help you decide whether you want to make college history teaching a career. Do you have “what it takes”? Is this the “route you want to go”? What follows will help you answer these questions. It will also call your attention to financial aid that is available for graduate study, and make suggestions about selecting a university for graduate study.
The decision is your own.

The AHA pamphlet encouraging undergraduates to study history.
The AHA pamphlet encouraging undergraduates to study history.

Apparently, what it took to get into graduate school ca. 1960 was a “strong interest in history” and “at least a ‘B’ record in history classes (with average or better grades in other college courses),” the ability “read two modern foreign languages” and “to write effective and lucid English prose.”

In 1959 “about 330 doctorates in history were awarded” (a few years later there were nearly 600 PhDs awarded, according to Figure 1 in this post) from about 85 universities in the U.S. Half studied U.S. history, a quarter modern European.

History graduate students were a smart lot: “A study in 1958 showed that 70% of them—a small notch higher than graduate students in general—had ranked in the upper fifth of their high school classes.” These budding young historians were destined for the upper socio-economic echelons: in 1960 new faculty could expect to make $5,200-6,400. And the sky was the limit: “In 1960-61 salaries of $13,000 for senior professors of history in major universities were not unusual and higher ones were sometimes paid.”

Those 1960-61 salaries turn out to be $39,900 to 49,100 for new hires and $99,800 for full professors. According to a survey of Average Salaries of Tenured & Tenure Track Faculty in The Chronicle, today’s new assistant faculty earn marginally more at $55,000. Salaries for full professors at research universities, by contrast, have remained flat at $99,800.

History salaries do not seem to have kept pace with the national average, which in 1961 was $4007 and in 2011 was 42,979—a 10.72 fold increase. Assistant professors have enjoyed an increase between 8.6 and 10.57 fold. Full professors have suffered worse at only a 7.7 fold increase. I am confident the numbers would look even worse if compared to people with some form of graduate degree (but I don’t have the energy to go find those numbers).

As today, the rhetoric in the profession guided graduate students to teaching careers. After six pages singing the praises of teaching, the pamphlet offers one short paragraph and tepid endorsement of alternative careers: “A large majority of persons who obtain training as professional historians become teachers of history. Some, however, pursue other activities such as politics or journalism.”

It is a bit unsettling to see how little history as a profession has changed over the last 50 years.

History is Always Advocacy

In the comments to the post Gopnik on Galileo people have raised some good points that warrant further reflection.

I want to begin by underscoring my point in that post:

  • Gopnik repeats a number of problematic historical tropes.
  • Historians of science have for years refuted those tropes, revealing how and why they are fallacious.
  • Despite the historians’ efforts, those tropes continue to be so alluring that authors and audiences ignore or dismiss the historical research.
  • There is no reason to hope that more historical research will change this situation.

But I believe the situation needs to be changed.

So maybe the way forward is to ask a different set of questions, to figure out why Gopnik et al. continue to value these tropes, to understand what work these tropes are doing for readers today.

Spoiler alert: Accuracy be damned, those tropes are unrecognized ways to advocate for a particular position that today’s authors and readers hold dear.

Michael Weiss asked me to be more precise about my objections. I don’t want to be more precise because that way leads to madness, or at least frustration (witness Thomas Mayer’s plight). As Becky pointed out, it is too easy to be read as nitpicking, pedantic, annoyingly fixated on the details and context that Gopnik dismisses as “much loved by contemporary historians.” Becky also suggests that we articulate why it matters that the details are right. We would do well to justify our concern. And historical accuracy is not, and never will be, sufficient.

Peter Canellos from the Boston Globe recently took Academy Award nominated movies, each “based on true story,” to task for historical inaccuracies: “Argo,” “Lincoln,” and “Zero Dark Thirty.” In an interview with Robin Young on “Hear & Now,” Canellos nicely summarized the errors in these movies (See Thony’s excellent “A Play is not a History Book” for an analysis of Brecht’s Galileo, a play that has been characterized on an academic webpage as “probably the most famous conflict between the search for truth in science and religious authority.”).

According to Canellos, in “Argo”, the CIA is given the lion’s share of the credit for formulating the escape plan and members of the British Embassy are portrayed as being unwilling to help. In fact, the Canadians devised and executed the plan, not the U.S. CIA. And members of the British Embassy secreted the U.S. staff around Tehran and to the Canadian Embassy. In “Lincoln”, the congressional debate about the 13th Amendment that outlawed slavery two of Connecticut’s four representatives vote against the amendment. In fact, as Representative Joe Courtney has pointed out to Steven Spielberg, all four voted for the amendment. Finally, in “Zero Dark Thirty”, torture made possible U.S. efforts to find and kill Osama Bin Laden. But, as various senators have pointed out, the portrayal is “grossly inaccurate and misleading.”

Canellos also articulates why it matters, at least for “Lincoln” and for “Zero Dark Thirty”. Spielberg has expressed interest in having his movie “Lincoln” used as a teaching tool. He apparently wants it to find a place in the classroom. Suddenly, inaccuracies begin to take on new meaning when knowingly inserted into educational contexts. In the case of “Zero Dark Thirty”, it makes a strong claim about the value of torture, a very real and live debate in the U.S. In “Argo”, the images of both the Canadians and the British are tarnished.

That seems to be the reason it matters. Portrayals of the past are always used in the present. The past exists only insofar as people today call it into existence for their own purposes. History is never value neutral, to move on to Michael’s other questions. Peter Dear argues this point in a recent essay.1 Rejecting the hope of being neutral, Dear seems to be saying that neutrality, even if it were possible, would deprive history of science and history more generally of its purpose:

Thoroughgoing historicism (in its usual contemporary sense) suggests that differences in basic categories of understanding and action render people living in past worlds, such as that of last week, wholly other than ourselves and not to be explicated in our necessarily anachronistic terms. They must be understood, we say, in their own terms, as early modern courtiers or natural philosophers, or Victorian “men of science,” rather than as modern scientists. All this is well and good, and a standard presupposition in the history of science. But fears of anachronism, or of loosely defined whiggishness, while they have been crucial to creating sensitive and insightful historical studies, cannot adequately define what historians of science do and, in particular, what they are good for in the enterprise of science studies. There remains the issue of what kinds of questions, originating from what foundations, and subject to what social or material constraints, drive historical inquiries (p. 51)

Dear draws on two excellent articles by Wilson and Ashplant where they argue that all questions, all research projects, all motivations to study the past, to pick out particular relics from that past, and to elevate those relics to the status of evidence are inextricably linked to our present. We can mitigate the distorting effects of our present, but we can never eliminate them.2 Later, more succinctly, Dear says: “Anachronism is a form of advocacy, and usually a suspect form, but advocacy is an integral part of what all historians do, whether deliberately or not.”

That seems to get at the heart of the problem and why the details matter. History is always advocacy. And advocacy is always serving somebody’s interest usually at the expense of somebody else’s. I would suggest there is still a deeper problem. Because most people do not see (or cannot see) their own advocacy, they do not have to take responsibility for it. They do not have to admit to themselves or their readers and viewers that they have an ax to grind. They never have to examine their own prejudices and biases.

Mark Attorri rightly noted that historians can’t do much about “simple human prejudice (and there’s obviously plenty of that when it comes to Galileo and the Church).” He also points to one way forward: give up the point-by-point refutation because “that just comes off as defensive,” and history has shown it doesn’t work. Instead, tell our own story “as if the other guy isn’t even in the room.” Sure, the motivations for telling the story, the relics elevated to the level of evidence, and the conclusions are all based on our worry about the “other guy.” Sure, we are advocating for a position. But that’s the nature of the historical project.

1 Peter Dear, “Science is Dead; Long Live Science,” Osiris 27 (2012): 37–55 (behind a paywall).
2 See, Adrian Wilson and T. G. Ashplant, “Whig History and Present-Centered HistoryThe Historical Journal 31 (1988): 1–16; T. G. Ashplant and Adrian Wilson, “Present-Centered History and the Problem of Historical KnowledgeThe Historical Journal 31 (1988): 253–74 (behind a paywall).

Does History Have a Role in Society?

Sarah Dunant’s opinion piece, “What is history’s role in society” makes some good points.

These and many works like them have helped to revolutionise our view of the past, incorporating the richness of the ordinary and the iconoclastic. Like a huge pointillist painting, the background to all those well-known central figures is slowly but surely filling up with depth and colour from thousands of dots of new historical knowledge.

This seems in line with recent concerns about hero-worship in the history of science, a concern that certainly applies equally to history in general. She attributes this shift to the influence of Marxism in historical practice.

All this exposes the current assault on the humanities within higher education as even more philistine. As far as one can tell the thinking goes like this: the study of history, english, philosophy or art doesn’t really help anyone get a job and does not contribute to the economy to the same degree that science or engineering or business studies obviously do.

Her comments here reflect common sentiments. The humanities make nice hobbies but really don’t warrant spending any real time or energy. Even at a place like Haverford faculty in the natural sciences have been overheard suggesting that we abolish non-science general education/distribution requirements. After all, the thinking goes, the sciences made and continue to make the modern world. Why would we expect students to study anything else?

I don’t think, however, Dunant does enough to combat the disregard for or hostility toward the humanities. Her response is too timid and, at the same time, overstates what the humanities can offer:

… The humanities, alongside filling one in on human history, teach people how to think analytically while at the same time noting and appreciating innovation and creativity. Not a bad set of skills for most jobs wouldn’t you say? As for the economy – what about the billion pound industries of publishing, art, television, theatre, film – all of which draw on our love of as well as our apparently insatiable appetite for stories, be they history or fiction?

Lots of teaching in the humanities does not, sadly, teach people how to think analytically or teach them to appreciate innovation and creativity. The humanities can be a mechanism for helping students develop analytical thinking skills and learn to appreciate innovation and creativity, but the humanities can also be a dull recitation of names, titles, places, dates, and facts. Moreover, the humanities don’t have a monopoly on teaching students how to think analytically or to appreciate innovation and creativity. Any discipline properly taught can accomplish those goals.

We need a better reason to study history and the other humanities. I don’t agree with M.C. Hunter who thinks we should never feel need to justify history:

M.C. Hunter thinks we should never justify the study of history.

The ostrich approach will further marginalize history and ensure its colonization by non-historians. Perhaps in some distant past and foreign country historians commanded the respect and awe of scientists as well as the general public—when professional history wasn’t boring—historians no longer commanded that respect. We have to be able and willing to convince skeptical or ill-disposed colleagues that we have a unique and valuable expertise, that we help make the world a better place.