The Imperfect Mirror: Reflecting on How Biases Shape Historical Studies

glass globe showing perspective main

History is the study of our past. It is not a neutral recording of information. Our different points of view play a fundamental role in how we remember history. We imperfectly remember events. Historians selectively determine what information to pass along. Our biases and perspectives shape the history we study. A complete history provides different perspectives. It will involve a choice of what we are interested in.

History Far and Wide 

History is the study of our past. It records and explains what people did, said, and thought. Written history began about eight thousand years ago. Before and after that point, people orally (word of mouth) passed along history. Written and oral history continues to this day.

The study of a small segment of knowledge can fill volumes. What information is passed along and remembered plays a significant part in understanding history. 

Bias and Perspective 

We do not create and study history completely objectively. Different points of view (perspectives) are used. People also have biases, which provide a flawed one-sided analysis. 

Perspective and biases are present in different ways. Our historical sources are products of various types of each. A court historian of a medieval kingdom will not tell the whole story.

The selection of what information to record and pass along orally is a fundamental aspect of what history we receive. We have incomplete sources from non-neutral observers. 

A good historian has diverse source material. Historians often try to provide different perspectives, including how women lived in the Middle Ages. Every writer will have some bias and personal point of view. Nonetheless, we can try our best to tell the complete story. 

Studying History 

We study history from a specific point of view. 

People had different judgments about Abraham Lincoln throughout the years. People who lived in the North and South viewed him differently. Our culture influenced how we learned about Abraham Lincoln. Most people honor him today. In the past, many did not.  

We study history to learn about certain things. Our culture and values influence our education. Education curricula do not merely provide a neutral study of the past. 

The study of Abraham Lincoln is a cottage industry. How we understand Lincoln involves a selective understanding viewed through different perspectives. 

We can apply the same principle to everyone and everything we study historically. History is not merely an objective study of the past. We pick and choose. We should keep this in mind. 

Imperfect Memory = Imperfect History 

Oral history plays a significant role in how we understand our past.

Ancient history often involves the writing down of stories passed along orally. Our written accounts are from years later. Modern history also includes obtaining testimony from witnesses. 

We rely on accurate memories to provide us with reliable history. Human memory is an imperfect vessel. We only retain limited information. Our recall hopefully retains the “gist” of what happened. We assume other details based on what we think is true. 

We misremember things even if they appear to be vividly in our consciousness. Eyewitness testimony can be very unreliable. If we receive information secondhand or thirdhand, things change through the translation. The famous “telephone game” underlines this fact. 

Distorted memory can result in distorted history. 

Selective History 

We remember history selectively. 

Imperfect information retained. People write down and pass along specific information based on their biases. We skip over other material for various reasons.  

Studies have shown that oral storytellers do not repeat the same material each time. They appeal to the needs of their audience. Different storytellers recite the material differently.  

The New Testament is a prime example of selective history. The four gospels provide different details about the life of Jesus based on each gospel’s message. The authors and readers are concerned about specific details of his life. For instance, we learn very little about his parents

When we study history, the average student only learns about limited details in their lessons. We study the highlights. Who determines what the “highlights” should entail? 

Newspaper articles provide headline news without essential information. We then move on to the next big thing. Meanwhile, the original story continues to affect us in different ways. 

Final Thoughts 

Good history skills entail keeping track of bias, perspective, context, and other things. Most people will just read their history books based on their particular interests and points of view.

A deeper understanding of human memory and history-making can provide a more satisfactory approach. The complexity of the transfer of our stories makes history more fascinating. 

History is not a simplistic study of names, dates, and events. It is as much an art as a science.

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.