Einstein once warned that what we study is in part framed and This Is My Christmas Pajama Shirt President Trump shirt who is doing the studying. In other words, the very act of studying something in part determines what you see, and therefore influences the outcome. This pretty much destroys any hope that we have of achieving objectivity in history, but it’s still important the we press ahead and that we try to be objective. We will fail, but part of the solution to this is that readers of history must do their part to understand the historian who produced a history, the tool that produced the product they are now reading, and try to take that person’s likely biases into account. This is an imperfect solution, but it is the best we have. Readers cannot just passively drink in what a historian feeds them; the reader is called upon to engage the historian through their work and understand them as well as the work. An example: Edward Gibbon achieved what all historians dream of but only a select few achieve: he wrote the definitive study on his subject, which is still read centuries after he’s gone.
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His classic work – or at least the This Is My Christmas Pajama Shirt President Trump shirt, unless you own all 10 volumes he wrote – The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is in the English-speaking world still the quintessential volume on the subject. Many books about the same subject have been published since and many of those are seen as doing a better job in some respects, but no Classicist will get their degree without reading Gibbon’s book. (OK, I admit it, I’m jealous too. ;)) His book shaped so much of what we modern Westerners think about “the fall of Rome” but many of his ideas were rooted in his place and times. He wrote his history in the later 18th century in London, and he was the happy subject of a flourishing and prosperous empire that spanned the world and indeed, was on the verge of creating a truly global economy and political structure.