Handlin vs. McNeill Essay
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Although events in history occurred over a long span of time and development, history first became an academic subject a little more than 100 years ago (McNeill 12). Since then, a plethora of controversies appeared regarding how historians, scholars, and intellectuals should examine and analyze history. Among the initial methods of studying history was the scientific research method, or scientific source criticism, which fundamentally extracts valid, legitimate facts from a diverse range of historical sources. Throughout time, however, the facts derived from this method of historical study gradually altered, leading to a new method of historical study: using facts and combining them with opinions and goals to constitute personal interpretations.
As Oscar Handlin zealously asserts, historians and scholars should provide a strict examination of history based on a chronological study of known and verifiable facts as opposed to using verifiable facts as the basis for their own interpretation, influenced by their own group, experiences, beliefs, and personal motives. Through implementing a strict examination of history, historians can successfully detect and eradicate bias in their writings, allow the government as well as individuals to gain an insight into the past in order to secure and progress the future, and grasp the magnitude of truth.
First, because strict examination of history based on a chronology and conclusive evidence can aid in discerning bias from genuine fact, historians should utilize the scientific method of research. Although Oscar Handlin admits that historians are never “totally free of bias” (7), he does claim that removing facts from interpretations eliminates bias, opinionated statements, and fiction from history, which is supposedly the chief goal and use of history (Handlin 5). On the contrary, when scholars employ William McNeill’s method of investigating history through interpretation, biased and one-sided analyses emerge, and, therefore, scholars may elasticize actual truth to suit their purpose. Historians who use interpretation to depict history “are likely to select facts to show that we-whoever ‘we’ may be-conform to our cherished principles” (McNeill 16). Consequently, a fusion between fact and bias results, distorting the truth and leading to ignorance.
Take, for instance, the example of Christopher Columbus. When examined through strict examination based on chronology and evidence, historians determine truths including the fact that Columbus’s voyages increased Europe’s rate of expedition to the Americas and the fact that Columbus contributed to the horrifying genocide of Native Americans. These derived facts provide insight into two perspectives of Columbus, and so, it diminishes the threats of bias. However, when explored through interpretations to suit purpose or please the audience, historians exaggerate Columbus’s prominence by omitting the negative perspective mentioned above and using overarching descriptions, verifying the detriments of bias. Essentially, the scientific method of research assists historians in limiting the bias and opinion used in their writing to produce exact facts that do not serve to please the audience.
In conclusion, when historians adhere to a specific study of history founded on chronology and corroborative facts, they can locate truth amidst clouds of speculation, myth, opinion, and bias, and they can use this truth to advance the human race. Rummaging through the treasure chest of historical sources and only selecting the jewels of absolute truth can facilitate the process of abolishing partiality and attaining objectivity and allow humans to use the past as a tool for enhancing the future.
Handlin aggressively proclaims, “Truth is absolute; it is as absolute as the world is real” (5). If historians truly possess profound feelings and support for the success of humanity, it is crucial that they acknowledge Handlin’s statement. If McNeill’s views are adopted and excessively used, however, absolute truth and its advantageous properties may be lost forever, masked by interpretations involving a blend of fact, fiction, and ideology. By working in accordance and using the scientific method of research, humans can conquer subjective interpretations and win the war against “faction-a combination of fact and fiction” (Handlin 8).