The MWS Podcast: Episode 24, Paul Teed on the study of history

In this latest member profile, Paul Teed a professor of history at Saginaw Valley State University tells us why he joined the society, what history means to him and why it matters. We also discuss objectivity, how to critically assess history, what he thinks of the film ‘12 years a slave’, the importance of ‘telling a story’ and how all this relates to his understanding of the Middle Way.


MWS Podcast 24: Paul Teed as audio only:
Download audio: MWS_Podcast_24_Paul_Teed

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About Barry Daniel

I live in the Lake District in the UK where I run a guesthouse with my partner Kate and my cat Manuel. I enjoy painting, hillwalking, reading, visiting and entertaining friends, T’ai Chi and playing the guitar. I’m engaged to a certain degree in the local community, as a volunteer with Samaritans and I’m a fairly active member of the local Green party. I’ve had a relatively intuitive sense of the Middle Way most of my adult life but it found a greater articulation and a practical direction through joining the society. It’s also been interesting and great fun engaging with other people with a similar outlook. My main contribution to the society is conducting the podcast interviews, something that gives me a lot of satisfaction and that I’ve learnt a lot from.

5 thoughts on “The MWS Podcast: Episode 24, Paul Teed on the study of history

  1. Thank you very much Barry for the podcast, I thought that Paul Teed was extremely interesting to listen to, I wonder if History is taught using his approach to the subject in schools in Britain.
    I have not seen the film Twelve Years of a Slave yet, but I remember you mentioned the film Downfall during one of the Skype chats Barry, so I made a point of watching it when it was showing on television and saw what you meant when you spoke about the lives of those in the bunkers during the last days of the European war.
    I am curious to know how Dr. Teed found the MWS website?

    1. Hi Norma
      You’re welcome! Me too. It would interesting to hear how creatively history is taught in the UK. I’d highly recommend ‘Twelve years a Slave’. I feel it’s one of those films that need to be watched although you do need to steel yourself for it as it can be quite harrowing at times, especially in regard to the violence involved in slavery and the plight of women. I recently re-watched Downfall and was struck once again by its power and intelligence.

  2. I enjoyed this too. It’s a great example of how the Middle Way provides a standpoint that reflects existing good academic practice. I was especially pleased to hear Paul talking about the importance of recognising the limitations of our understanding of the past. This is also timely for me, as in my work on ‘Middle Way Philosophy 4′, I have recently been writing about the metaphysical views that can be adopted about time and the ways these relate to cognitive biases.

    The cognitive biases that particularly relate to the past, that I have been considering, are the sunk cost fallacy (which involves attachment to something we did in the past that we can’t give up when conditions change), survivorship bias (where we judge a wider category only on those that have survived a selection process – e.g. successful businesses), the falsification of history (where we project current beliefs onto the past), and the news illusion (the assumption that recent, media-selected events are necessarily the most relevant ones for us to focus on). These are just some particular examples of ways that our objectivity about the past can be unnecessarily limited. Obviously a lot could be said about these in relation to the historical material Paul was talking about. For example, Paul mentioned 3 slave narratives including ’12 years a slave’. I found the film very powerful myself, but there is also a danger of survivorship bias if we put too much emphasis on such narratives: written by the extremely small minority of slaves who were literate and had the opportunity to write their stories.

  3. Hi Robert,

    Might it not be the case that some of these cognitive biases are inherent and unavoidable in the study of history?

    Take the survivorship bias. It is only possible to create a narrative and draw conclusions from the sources that are available, and by definition this must be those that have survived at the expense of others, this is the case for all historical evidence – it has survived. Most of the sources (especially written) available to someone studying something like the slave trade come overwhelmingly from white European sources, which presents quite a serious survivorship bias. As you point out, the rare cases where we have written documentation from those that were actually slaves, also form part of a bias, however from both the European (I include white Americans here) sources and the literate slave sources we are able to re-construct the lives of the slaves themselves – with the latter conceivably giving us the more accurate picture. My point is that if we worry too much about the survivorship bias then we might risk losing a significant voice (albeit an indirect one) of those that were unable to, or prevented from leaving a direct trace. The survivorship bias should be understood and acknowledged, rather than avoided.

    I think that the same might be true with the falsification of history bias. At present I am of the view that all historical analysis and narrative is (strongly, in many cases) influenced by the individual/ society from which it is written, and often tells us more about that than the historical period in question. To suggest otherwise is to suggest that we can separate the author (historian) from the account (history) – namely a purely objective perspective.

    Barry, I have not listened to this, but look forward to doing so and I am sure that it will be useful to my own studies.

    History was definitely not taught in a creative way at my school, 20 years ago. I really didn’t enjoy it, and yet now I am trying to study it at degree level, for my own amusement – and enjoying it very much.

    Part of the problem at school was that history was taught as a series of unquestionable facts to be remembered. It was only much later that I discovered that history is far from this. There are some ‘facts’ (which themselves are subject to change) that form a skeleton, from which the historian can add flesh, with analysis but also with a great deal of creativity and imagination. History is a subject that demands to be engaged with, there is no single narrative – it is an ever changing and expanding story. At the start of my degree it was suggested to me that people often mistakenly interchange the concept of history with the past, which is wrong. The past is an unknowable, objective idea, while history is the method (and subsequent result) of attempting to understand and describe said past.

    Rich.

    1. Hi Rich,
      I agree with you, in relation to these and any other cognitive biases, that they are to some extent unavoidable – the question is, how much. This is a crucial point in relation to cognitive biases in general. For me, they identify conditions that work against objectivity with an ambiguous degree of responsibility. We are never going to be able to overcome the condition that we only have access to ‘survivors’, for example, but on the other hand we do have a degree of responsibility for how we respond to this situation. The kind of awareness (that Paul recommends) of the limitations of our access to truth of past events, offers a good practical response to help overcome these biases.

      Part of the misunderstanding here seems to lie in the very term ‘cognitive bias’. The popular idea of ‘bias’ is one that we can be totally responsible for, but the academic over-reaction to this can instead lean towards determinism and deny our degree of responsibility. I prefer to use the term ‘bias’ for that element that we can be practically responsible for – without denying that cognitive biases are tendencies that arise from the unavoidable circumstances we work within.

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