Can Records Really Tell Us What Happened in the Past?

We have all heard the saying that man is a record-keeping animal. This aphorism conveys more than the simple notion that man burdens himself with ledgers, accounts, and statistics while the animal does not. It is man’s ability to preserve his experiences, plus his capacity to reason and think, that separates him from the beasts. His record-keeping habits help give him his civilization. Through records he transmits ideas, experiences, and technical know-how, along with numerous other forms of data and categories of information.

This ability of man to bless his descendants with the accumulated knowledge of his race enables him to progress beyond the primitive stages of his existence and to sustain an ever-increasing social momentum.

Another hallmark of man is his preoccupation with history. He senses both a psychological need and a practical need to understand his past: psychological because knowledge of self depends as much on awareness of the group’s past (history) as it does on one’s own personal past (memory), and practical because man’s world has been shaped by history.

Man knows that his attitudes, his beliefs, and his institutions are products of historical environment, and that many important decisions that he makes from day to day are influenced by his understanding of the past. He knows too that transmitted records, as keys of the past, have been used to turn false locks, and that erroneous views of history have led men down wrong corridors—eventually to dead ends—because society invariably falters if it moves in directions at variance with history.

For these reasons, man is willing to support a rather sizeable profession designed to do nothing more than write his history and instruct him in it.

Records transmitted by the past are the raw materials from which history is written. They form the unconstructed, collective memory of man. They do not furnish, however, a ready-made history. In their raw state, they are chaotic and disorganized. As raw materials, they must be mined, refined, and processed into history. This is the role of the historian.

As the historian approaches his task, he is confronted by a question that challenges the very validity of historical writing. Is it really possible to construct a truthful history of the past? Perhaps history is, as the skeptic says, only a pretense of truth. The question is prompted, of course, by the fact that only a minutia of the totality of human thoughts and actions has been recorded.

The countless unrecorded events, on the other hand, suffer a death apparently as complete as that of physical being. I remember, for instance, the wonderment I felt years ago upon learning that a landslide or the falling of a tree occurs noiselessly unless an organ of sound is near at hand to intercept the sound waves and convert them into audible sensations.

How many human deeds have gone similarly unrecorded? With so much missing, can valid history be written? The historian answers this question with a qualified affirmative.

In the first place, although much human endeavor is irretrievably lost, it has been man’s genius to preserve records of the things that have meant the most to him or have affected him the most (for good or ill), and this goes far to offset the loss. Even if we cannot recover each past thought or deed, we are still the recipients of most of what has really counted in history. We may never learn more about a particular ancestor than his name, but through records kept by his contemporaries we can learn about his times, and indirectly we can learn what he thought and how he felt.

The actual past, as the totality of all that has happened, is, indeed, irrecoverable. The meaningful past, however, is accessible through the transmitted, written records. Such records are to the historian what fossil remains and rock strata are to the geologist, or artifacts to the archaeologist. But unlike silent rocks and muted artifacts, the written records are articulate. On the basis of artifacts alone, for example, what archaeologist could penetrate the metaphysics of an ancient religion?

Ancient art may depict men and women in contemporary dress and activity, but art alone cannot tell us much about a prevailing social order, to say nothing of the rationale that supported it. Who could have deduced the inferior status of women in classical Greece from the exquisite paintings of the fairer sex that adorn the delicate vases surviving from ancient Attica? Who could reconstruct the feudal order of medieval Europe from the ruins of castles and study of hauberk and mace? The written records alone enable us to penetrate the inner core of past civilizations.

Though the written records speak of the past, they are not history in and of themselves. They are the memorable fragments of human experience and can bear witness of history, but their testimony must be extracted by the historian. The records lack balance. They need collating and interpreting. It is their nature to be versionary, cryptic, idiomatic; and the historian must subject each one to intensive, critical examination.

Important questions are also asked of each: Are they genuine? Fraud is not a modern invention. Do they convey truth? Or do they mislead? Is the account they contain representative? Slanted? Was the author informed? Is he clear? Ambiguous? Are the contents colored by his biases?

To extract valid answers, the historian follows proven rules of criticism; he adheres to strict laws of probability, weighs all the evidence, searches for hidden clues, resorts to comparative analysis, and seeks to get inside his events and times.

Nor does this critical method end with the examination of the records. It next involves the self-examination of the historian. He too is a factor in the outcome, intervening as he does between the raw records and the finished product.

How does the testimony of the records impress itself upon his consciousness? His account is a synthesis of his own thinking and what the records say. Whether his research was thorough and the task of criticism well-performed is only one measure of his effectiveness as a historian.

Did he grasp the whole picture offered by his sources? Did he master the detail? Does his work show intellectual integrity? Does it show clarity? How well did he avoid allowing his mind to act as a filter, screening away those things disagreeable to his tastes and cultural conditioning while allowing passage of only that data which confirms his biases and those of his class, religion, or party?

However well or poorly the historian measures up to the full demands of historical writing affects the balance and credibility of his history. He can afford to be neither partisan, polemical, sentimental, nor ideological. If he is, he may spin a yarn but he will not reknit the enchanting tapestry of history. If he spins a yarn he will find another historian calling his hand, for historical writing tends to be self-corrective. The errors and fallacies of some are soon discovered by others, and the edifice of historical knowledge is constructed as nearly correct as possible in conformity with the original blueprint.

The process of historical investigation is, therefore, a continuing one, as are those processes which explore other fields of knowledge. Each succeeding generation poses new questions to history, as changing circumstances dictate. It is the historian’s credo that the written records of the past contain its pertinent truths and that history can furnish the self-knowledge that man needs, for history is the collective memory of the past, critically examined.

And just as man must separate the imaginative from the real in his own memory if it is to serve him as a reliable guide into the future, so must he depend on a similarly purged critical history as the compass and rudder of his society.

Dr. Schmutz is an associate professor of history at Brigham Young University (on leave). He serves as age-group counselor in Sharon Stake MIA and teaches Sunday School in the Orem 31st Ward.