Sample Response to Real GRE Issue Questions
Issue # 7: "When we
concern ourselves with the study of history, we become storytellers.
Because we can never know the past directly but must construct it by
interpreting evidence, exploring history is more of a creative enterprise
than it is an objective pursuit. All historians are storytellers."
There would seem to be two different perspectives presented in the above
statement. The first two sentences are concerned with exploring history
and would seem to discuss looking at history that has already been
written. People who concern themselves with the study of history are not
storytellers, but rather story interpreters. The last sentence refers to
the people that write about history, the historians themselves. Certainly,
to a certain extent, historians must be storytellers because they have a
story to tell. But the term "storyteller" seems to imply a greater amount
of creativity than what is involved in actually explaining what has
happened in history. For the purposes of this essay, I will focus on the
perspective of the historian, as it would appear to be the underlying core
From the perspective of the historian, most historians do not have the
benefit of having lived through the period of history that they are
writing about. By researching through thousands of old letters, legal
documents, family heirlooms and the like, historians must look at
fragments of history and somehow put these pieces together to reconstruct
what actually happened. In this sense, they must be storytellers because
inevitably, their personal insights become part of what others will see
when they read the historian's writings. As an example, there are many
differing opinions as to whether Thomas Jefferson actually fathered
children with one of his slaves. Some historians have written that it is a
virtual certainty, while others argue that it was his brother, rather than
Thomas himself, that fathered the children. They both cannot be right.
Although they are all historians, they are also storytellers giving their
opinion on what version of events actually transpired.
Historians that are documenting events as they happen today have much less
of an opportunity to fall into the "storyteller" category as they are
present as witnesses to these events as they are happening. Television,
newspaper and other media coverage is widespread and almost unrelenting.
Television captures visuals and audios that are spread rapidly around the
world and theoretically can last forever. There is much less room for
putting one's own "spin" on an event, especially regarding the exact
details of what happened. But even with today's events, there is room for
opinion on the part of the historian. For example, historians are already
arguing what evidence the United States government had regarding potential
terrorism prior to the incredible tragedy of September 11, 2001. Looking
back now, it seems obvious that the government should have known that
something on a large scale was going to happen. With the benefit of
hindsight, there were several failures in the government's
counter-terrorism efforts. Historians will now argue over the exact
version of what happened, as they become storytellers to try to explain
9/11 to future generations.
Another example showcasing the idea that all historians are storytellers
is that of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Variations on
who was responsible and what actually happened have been the focus of
hundreds, if not thousands, of books and historical accounts. Many
historians argue vehemently that his or her account of history is the
"true" version. Given the same evidence, historians decide which evidence
is credible and which is not to arrive at their own conclusions. Clearly
storytelling is a big part of how history is written.
Particularly when it concerns ancient history, all historians must be
storytellers to a certain degree. "Connecting the dots" of surviving
evidence from the time period or event being examined requires a certain
amount of personal intuition and supposition. Historians that write about
events from the more recent periods will probably be less inclined to be
"storytellers" as the sheer mass of evidence that is presented will likely
lead to better documentation of historic events as they happen.