How to Battle Historical Bias: A Catholic Guide
COMMENTARY: It’s important to recognize and acknowledge the inevitability of bias in historical narratives and learn to see through it.
For most of us, the word “battlefield” conjures up images of historic places associated with conflict, like the fields of Gettysburg or the beaches of Normandy.
The battlefields of today, however, are ideological as much as they are physical. History itself has become a battleground in the culture war.
The stakes are high — at issue are fundamental questions about identity, heritage and values. What does it mean to be American? What does it mean to be Catholic? How should we assess our histories, both national and ecclesiastical? Should they be celebrated or apologized for?
Biased historical books, videos and commentaries proliferate, arguing this view or that, sometimes harboring thinly veiled (or not so thinly veiled) vitriol against the Catholic faith and Western civilization in general.
Given the state of things, I am often approached by Catholic parents who are concerned about how this war for the past could affect their children. How can children be inoculated against the dangers posed by historical sources that are biased against the faith? With so much rubbish out there, how can families sort out the good from the bad? How can we educate our children to be critical readers of history, capable of recognizing biased writing, keeping what is good and tossing what is bad?
There is no fool-proof answer, and even the most prudent of us have occasionally fallen prey to a hoax or been taken in by a biased perspective. Nevertheless, I think there are several avenues we can take with our kids to build up their immunity to biased history.
1. Cultivate a broad knowledge of history in your children.
One reason people get taken in by biased historical work is that they lack a sufficient knowledge of history to sense when they are being hoodwinked.
By way of analogy, a person who eats healthy in general is going to be better at discerning the nutritional value of particular foods than one who pays no heed to nutrition. An athlete with comprehensive training in many types of exercises can make better judgments about what constitutes a sound training regimen than a novice. Similarly, someone who has a thorough knowledge of history is likelier to realize if something is off than one whose historical knowledge is spotty. So, in the first place, commit to a solid historical education for your children.
2. Intentionally expose them to examples of biased works.
The best way to avoid poison ivy is to become educated about what it looks like so you can recognize it when you encounter it. In my history classes, I often have my students read samples of clearly biased historical writings to help them see what bias looks like. I ask them to reflect on questions like, “Where do you think the author’s sympathies lay? How can you tell? What sorts of appeals to emotion do you find in the author’s writing?” These sorts of questions teach students to think critically about what they are reading so they can separate fact from opinion. Since they are going to inevitably be exposed to biased writing in adulthood, it is important to introduce them to it now in a controlled environment so they can learn to recognize it.
3. Learn the difference between facts and narratives.
Following up on our previous point, it is important to help children disentangle historical fact from historical narrative. A fact is a simple point of history, such as “Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865,” or “St. Peter was the first bishop of Rome.” A narrative, on the other hand, is the author’s interpretation of what the historical facts mean. For example, it is undeniable that the Crusades saw thousands of Catholics invade the Holy Land in an attempt to retake Jerusalem. That’s a fact.
But what do we make of these events? Were they outbursts of blatant European aggression, or were they a justified defensive reaction against the Islamic caliphate? Should the Crusades be viewed as pious undertakings, or as excuses for plunder? Now we are entering the realm of narrative — how the historian thinks we should interpret the facts.
Not all narratives are bad. In fact, without narratives, it would be impossible to make sense of the immense jumble of people, events and ideas that make up the historical tapestry. They help us find a structure, a narrative arc in the events of the past. Narratives can be more or less plausible, however, and it is important to teach students to recognize and assess them.
4. Get knowledge from multiple sources.
Make sure your historical knowledge comes from more than one source. This advice holds for any sort of knowledge. It is dangerous to get all of one’s information from a small handful of websites, a single news channel, or only one author. This is akin to eating only one food group, or doing only one exercise. Variety is key. When you get your information from multiple sources, there is a kind of checks-and-balances effect as various authors complement and balance each other’s accounts, giving a more comprehensive assessment of history than you could get from a single author.
When I am studying a complex event like, say, the French Revolution, I like to read books presenting multiple perspectives — the revolution as experienced by the Catholic Church, the political movements within the revolution, the philosophy of the revolutionaries, the economics of the revolution, etc.
Obviously, a child is not likely to have the time to do such comprehensive studies, but you can still use a variety of sources. For example, if your child is studying Renaissance Italy, you could supplement her coursework with some historical fiction reading, an online documentary or podcast, and a trip to the local art museum. Besides offering various perspectives, this approach is more immersive and likely to be more memorable for your child.
5. Accept that bias exists.
Finally, we must simply accept that bias exists in historical writing, to greater or lesser degrees — not only malicious bias, but even bias among authors with the best intentions. Because we are human beings, we can never escape bias entirely — but we can learn to be aware of it and take it into account when we study history.
We can also recognize that bias in itself can have historical value.
For example, when we read the Byzantine princess Anna Comnena’s heavily biased diatribe against the leaders of the First Crusade, her bias itself is a historical witness to how the Byzantine nobility viewed the Crusaders. Or, to use a more contemporary example, how biased media coverage of a political candidate exemplifies the political philosophy of certain media outlets. Helping children recognize these sorts of innuendos in media coverage is an excellent way for them to practice critical thinking about the information they take in.
Knowledge requires constant vigilance about the information we consume and the conclusions we draw from it. While we can never eliminate bias, we can at least equip our children with the tools to recognize and engage it constructively.