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The Big Question: Can we trust history?

Updated Friday, 30th August 2019

There's no one agreed version of history. So how can we trust any of it?

Busts of Lenin and Gorbachev Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: BBC

As new research continues to cast new light on old "facts" and new historians ask unexplored questions, can we ever know the whole truth about what happened in the past? Can history ever be objective - or even accurate? If we can't depend on our history, can we ever fully understand where we are going and can age-old disputes that rely on particular versions of history ever be resolved? The Big Question: can we actually trust history?

Many of us get our history from school text books . But how balanced are they? It is ten years since South Africa ended years of white rule and racial segregation, but by 2001 books being used in the country's schools were still not reflecting the true history of what people went through under apartheid. So the government set up an initiative to re-assess and rewrite them. Historian June Bam is the Chief Executive Officer of the South African History Project.She says history books that are plain wrong can do huge psychological damage.

What part does history play in the development of national identity? In 1947, on independence from Britain, the Indian subcontinent was partitioned into Hindu-majority but nominally secular India and the newly created Muslim state of Pakistan. The partition was one of the most violent periods in the history of the subcontinent. Over half a million people were killed in communal violence and about a million people were left homeless.

But how are school children in the two countries taught about partition? The Big Question hears from Urvashi Butalia an Indian writer and the co-founder of Kali for Women, India's first feminist publishing house; and Bapsi Sidhwa, a Pakistani-born writer, whose novels reflect her own experience of partition. Do school textbooks give children a one-sided view of history?

So when does historical fact become historical fiction? We examine two different accounts of the Great California Gold Rush of 1848 - that of the academic historian, and that of the tour guide. Is one narrative more reliable? Or do we need them both to get a full picture?

If history is used to justify territorial claims and long-running disputes, can it also be harnessed to bring peace? Elazar Barkan is Professor of History and Cultural Studies at Claremont University in the US and author of The Guilt of Nations: Restitution and Negotiating Historical Injustices. In 2001 Professor Barkan set up the International History Initiative in an attempt to clarify contentious historical issues. The professor's challenge - to get historians in conflict areas to sit down together and reach a consensus on events in the past, and then write a joint narrative of those events acceptable to all.

This edition of The Big Question was first broadcast on 19th June 2004

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