Tuesday, September 12, 2017

History End of Unit Written Assessment

“Some areas of knowledge seek to describe the world, whereas others seek to transform it.” Explore this claim with reference to history and one other area of knowledge.

The claim "Some areas of knowledge seek to describe the world, whereas others seek to transform it" is quite important in the fact that it cut directly to the purpose of areas of knowledge. In this prompt, the words "describe" and "transform" are paired against one another, creating a binary in which we should be able to easily sort areas of knowledge into a category of descriptive or transformative. These distinctions, however, are not so clear cut, as these distinctions themselves exist within individual areas of knowledge. But what exactly do these terms "describe" and "transform" mean in this context? In terms of an area of knowledge, description means attempting to show what is happening or has happened, while transformation means to apply the area of knowledge and change the status quo. With this in mind, how distinct and separate are these terms? Can we even have one without the other? These terms also bring to mind concepts like objectivity, verification, and perspective and bias, as well as the ethics of consuming knowledge. For the purposes of this essay, I will be examining the prompt in terms of history and the sciences.

Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492. The United States won independence in 1776. The atomic bomb was first used in World War 2. History sounds pretty descriptive here. At first glance, an area of knowledge that spends an inordinate amount of time telling you what happened in this place on this date seems like it can be pretty squarely placed under the "describe" category. This, however strange at first glance, is not exactly correct. History both describes and transforms the world around it. History's purpose is to educate people about the past, but why? So that something can be done with that knowledge. What were the ethical implications of Columbus's initiation of colonization? How were oppressed peoples affected by U.S. independence from England? How could the 20th century have been different had the Nuclear Age and Cold War never occurred? The trite aphorism "those who forget history are doomed to repeat it" is trite because it's so true: the implications of historical events can guide political and social decisions today. This is true of the actions recorded in history, but also in the ways we keep them. In August, Dr. Molly McCullers, an historian and professor at the University of West Georgia, explained her work in the country of Namibia. There, she studied the official documents kept and compared them with oral histories from around the country. Her conclusions led her to challenge the dominant narratives about the country, which said that the country was either liberated from South African colonization by the current party in power (revolutionaries from colonization), or from intervention from the United Nations. Her work challenged each of those, saying that the truth is a much more complex interplay of forces on the country, and this conclusion inspired me and my fellow students to examine dominant narratives that shape our thinking as well as teleological histories which disregard and dispel possibilities in favor of the path that supports the end result. All of her descriptions transformed preconceptions about the country, setting her outside of the categories presented by the prompt.

Another point Dr. McCullers was certain to make was that facts are immutable, but they are not objective. A history, which is a presentation of facts under a specific narrative, features editorial decisions about what is or is not included, partially because not everything can or should be included, and partially because of the perspectives and biases of those who write and create histories. For instance, in Georgia public schools, students are rarely taught about the Gay Rights Movement, Stonewall Riot, or the diversity of these groups. When these subjects are taught, they tend to focus more on the gay, white, cisgender men of the movement rather than those who were influential but not of that identity. Minority groups are rarely the ones in power when deciding the dominant narratives of a region or country's history, and as such, the history of such groups is withheld and disregarded. The creation and dissemination of history is always a political act because of the biases held by those in power, and skepticism of dominant narratives can help begin remedying this problem, transforming the world.

The sciences behave similarly, but vary to some small degree due to the two main distinctions in the area of knowledge: natural sciences and human sciences. Natural sciences, such as chemistry, physics, and biology, all seek to describe natural phenomena in the world. Neon is a noble gas. The acceleration of gravity is 9.8 m/s squared. Mitochondria generate adenosine triphosphate in cellular respiration. It is the application of these descriptions that transforms the world. How does the presence of foreign DNA in mitochondria change what we've previously believed about evolution? How can advancements with particle accelerators change technology and our knowledge of the world? These are questions constantly asked by people who routinely describe and transform the world, often with the same act. Human sciences, often somewhat derogatorily called "soft sciences," such as economics, psychology, sociology, and anthropology, differ in that many have less to do with discovery and description and more with application and transformation. Many of these, especially sociology, are activist sciences in which their goal is to remedy some problem in the world. This, of course, requires a description of the world and its problem, but this is solely in order to transform the world.

The distinction between these two sciences becomes very important in terms of objectivity and verification. Natural sciences are often times seen as fairly objective and easily verified or recreated. Respiration without oxygen will always yield lower amounts of ATP, a feather and anvil will always hit the ground at the same time in space. However, Keynesian economics is not something that is easily recreated in exact laboratory conditions. This often leads to speculation that human sciences are baseless or easily injected with bias, and while it is somewhat true that bias can play a larger role in an anthropological study than in a chemistry experiment, bias is treated similarly to how historians treat it: it comes with the territory, is minimized where possible, and acknowledged as much as it can be.

The prompts assertion that areas of knowledge can be divided into those that describe the world and those that change it ignores the intricate interplay of the two actions and does not leave room for the complexities that lie within those distinctions. In both history and the sciences, there is often times a series of steps to this. Description of the world is used by a specialist in that area of knowledge to change the world. A more apt rewording of the prompt would be to say that many areas of knowledge seek to describe the world and then to change it.


  1. "The trite aphorism" what great words, I barely know what they mean. :) I think you did a really good job on this.

    1. But is there any other kind?

      "A simple truth is no truth at all." But wait!
      "There are two kinds of people in the world, those who believe there are two kinds of people in the world, and those who are smart enough to know better." But wait!

  2. Good on you (and others) for identifying and deconstructing the implied binary early in this essay, though your definition for description remains a bit cloudy. Save the list of concepts, and introduce them as they become important.

    Good idea also to include Molly's work here, though your use of it remains a bit muddled. Be sure to very clearly explain how description leads to transformation. "Where we keep it" is vague. It seems you could use Molly's example (International vs revolutionary dominant narratives) as clear examples of the way that particular DESCRIPTIONS are always put to TRANSFORMATIVE ends. (Here is probably where some of those key concept words should be put to use.)

    Nice conclusion here!