We have long struggled with the problem of fallibility (ours, speaking as a historian), facts, and questions of truth and truth-claims. Now, it seems we are faced every day with the very real and very vexing problem of public lying, or as some want to call it, “opinions.”
In our classrooms, we correct students who call an interpretation or analysis an “opinion.” We tell them “I like the color red” is an opinion, a statement of preference, but whether or not race existed in the Middle Ages is an interpretation based on close reading of primary source documents. Yet each of struggles with this every term, when at least one student claims, for example, that Robert Bartlett’s thesis on race and ethnicity in the Middle Ages is his opinion. Aarrgghh. We correct them, critique them, ding the grade, and still it persists.
But, holy Moses, this has gotten out of hand. President-elect Trump blasts out a demonstrably false tweet about electoral fraud and the VP-elect Mike Pence dismisses this lie as “opinion.” Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, the designated national security adviser, and his son, spread malicious lies about Hillary Clinton and yet the New York Times called this “social media musings.” Truth as musing? Truth gets dismissed as inconvenient (á la Al Gore’s film) or so very quaint, something only a third-grade teacher in the 1950s would care about.
Is anyone keeping score? Truth is losing, badly.
So, let’s get out there and turn this nasty and dangerous bit of anti-intellectual derision into a teaching moment. We can structure our classroom and homework assignments around questions of what facts are, what truth is, and how to discern one from the other. I recall one of the most challenging final exam questions in a college history course was this: Prove definitely that Louis XIV actually lived. I think I got a decent grade on that exam, but looking back, I can now see the pedagogy behind it: check your sources. Rigorously. Trust them only after you check them again and again. Verify translations. Be skeptical.
This fall, in a survey course on the history of the Middle Ages, I asked students to ponder what “truths” our sources tell about non-elites. As primary sources, I had them use the Domesday Book and archaeology reports from eleventh-century Britain. For context, they used an “empirical” textbook. They struggled, but I think (I hope) they got the point: It take a LOT of work to know even a partial truth about medieval Britain. It wasn’t a perfect assignment, and next time, I’ll have them read something to prep them for the problem of historical truth, the bias in a textbook, and how to read obliquely to find truth in what’s omitted.
As I put together syllabi for the winter term, here are just a few things on my reading list:
- Dewey, John. “The problem of truth.” The Essential Dewey 2 (1911): 101-130.
- Lynch, Michael Patrick. The nature of truth: Classic and contemporary perspectives. Mit Press, 2001.
- White, Hayden. The content of the form: Narrative discourse and historical representation. JHU Press, 2009.
- White, Hayden. “Historical Emplotment and the Problem of’ Truth.'” Probing the Limits of Representation, ed. S. Friedlander, Harvard University Press, Cambridge (1992).
But what I’m really interested in are pedagogical strategies, so please share your ideas.