What is history? The first time I realized that the word could be broken up as ‘his’ ‘story,’ it was a revelation. Most of what we learned in school was the story of men, of particular men, those in power. One could argue that telling the story of the powerful is appropriate – after all they made the rules, they shaped the future. At least more so than ‘ordinary’ people. If we are studying the founding of America, learning about Washington and Jefferson is imperative. But, of course, that doesn’t tell the full story. Telling the full story is complicated.
So many things go into defining history. First, who is writing or telling the story? Who chooses what is included in the curriculum? Until relatively recently, historians were mostly male and mostly white. While in theory facts are facts (although in TrumpWorld perhaps we have moved into a ‘post-factual’ period), we know that making connections and analyzing information are colored by the biases and assumptions we bring to it. Our understanding is broadened and deepened when a range of perspectives are brought to bear on a topic.
It becomes a matter of balance – history can’t solely be the domain of the privileged. But, we don’t have unlimited time, even if we take into account that we send children to school for 12 years, time is short. Choices are made. It is hard to pack in all the history we want our citizens to know and provide them with a global perspective, too. When I was in elementary school in New York City in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, we were taught American history by highlighting the contributions of every different group that made up our country (maybe not every different group). We learned about Crispus Attucks, Haym Salomon, Baron Von Steuben, Tadeus Kościuszko, Marquis de Lafayette – I came away proud that so many different people, representing different ethnicities and backgrounds, contributed. We learned about Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, etc., too. The message I took home was that the Revolution was a noble cause, with many contributors.
Looking back, I recognize that there were gaping holes and many things were romanticized. When the values that inspired the American Revolution were taught, the fact that women, Native Americans and Blacks were deliberately left out of the vision of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness was not given much attention – more of a passing mention. It wasn’t until 11th grade that I learned about our treatment of indigenous people – the deliberate spreading of smallpox via blankets, for example. My children spent a great deal of time in elementary school learning about the native people of New York State – changes in curriculum were made. I don’t know if they learned about the different contributors to the Revolution, as I did. I’m not suggesting there is necessarily a trade-off, I don’t know.
In talking with friends, even friends who were in school with me, not everyone remembers learning the same stuff I recall. I was interested so I paid attention. How does that factor into all of this? Sometimes when I hear criticisms of our education because some subjects weren’t included, I think to myself, but I remember learning about that. Which brings me back to my first point – what is history and who is telling it? Perhaps we can dig up the approved curriculum for 4th grade social studies in New York City in 1968, but that may or may not be what was taught in a given classroom. And, my friend may have been absent the day we learned about Crispus Attucks.
In my limited experience doing research for this blog, I have found it challenging to settle on a ‘truth’ about events. Some are small events, like when Cutie the cat leapt out of the car window. My family agrees that it happened, but not how or why. In a more serious example, when I researched the murder of my paternal grandfather’s family in Poland by the Nazis, the specifics were hard to get a handle on. The fact of their death was indisputable, but where and how many were killed, was hard to establish. It opened my eyes to the difficulty of uncovering history and how it gets reported.
Another question is: who or what is being written about? What resources were available to reconstruct events? Could my blog constitute ‘history?’ Many of my essays are memoir, recounting experiences from 50 or more years ago, or incidents from last week. Diaries and letters are great but need context and corroboration. I don’t imagine that Donald Trump keeps a diary or writes letters, but if he did, he would hardly be a reliable source. What will history have to say about him?
You may be wondering, where am I going with this? I think these questions are central to what we are going through as a country today. We are coming to grips with a fuller picture of our history. We are raising questions about the lessons we were taught. Some feel threatened by that questioning.
We are also addressing the role of monuments and museums in the telling of that history. We are recognizing that our understanding of history evolves and then what do we do with those monuments and museums? Some might argue that our history is being rewritten and resent it because it feels like sand is shifting beneath our feet. But it is always being rewritten – there continues to be scholarship about the fall of the Roman Empire. It is right that it is rewritten and rewritten again. No doubt it can be unsettling, but it is necessary for our growth.
This doesn’t mean that I don’t believe in history, or that we should cast aside all that we learned. But, I do think, like with most things, we need to read critically, ask questions and be open to new interpretations.
I come back to a quote from Maya Angelou, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” I think that applies to where we are now. I think we all need to be on a quest in our lives to know better, so we can do better.