A broad and baffling range of historical questions confront the historian. These questions are not only intellectual, but also emotional and ethical. To answer them requires not only the ability to read and interpret the documents of the past but also the imagination to enter into the minds and hearts of those whose lives, actions, or choices are being described. This skill allows the historian to empathize with people whose actions are often irrational, whether it is a slave trader or Hitler.
This empathetic approach is not to excuse bad behavior, but to understand it. It is a major task, and the ability to understand requires some level of empathy, a capacity that seems to be in short supply among those who do not have the training of the historian.
It is this ability to understand that makes the historian different from a journalist or a politician. Historians do not present a particular point of view or bias; they seek to explain events in ways that can be understood by others. The study of history provides a set of skills that help students become more informed citizens and make better decisions in their own lives.
Students learn to distinguish between the objective and the self-serving statements of political leaders. They learn to use and combine many kinds of evidence: public records, private documents, oral histories, visual materials, numerical data. As they work on these skills, students gain a sense of the challenges involved in creating accurate pictures of the past.
The student of history also gains experience with a wide variety of perspectives and philosophies. For example, students encounter the works of those who believe that all human beings are equal and should be treated as such. This perspective contrasts with the philosophies of those who believe that certain groups are superior to other groups.
Finally, the student of history develops an understanding that higher-level social structures and causes are dependent upon microfoundations at the individual level. These microfoundations may be economic, religious, racial, or political. The ability to recognize these dependencies is crucial for making informed and responsible decisions in the modern world.
These skills are not easily learned. Unlike the popular perception that history is “just facts,” it is a highly complex discipline. Historians struggle to elicit as much truthful and unbiased information about the past as possible. This effort is made more difficult by the fact that many things happened at once, actors’ motives are often ambiguous, and causal relationships are sometimes contested. This complexity makes it challenging to produce a single narrative of even a relatively simple event. The result is that there are often multiple truthful, unbiased, but inconsistent accounts of any given event. This is why historians distinguish between the “facts” of history and the interpretations of those facts.