What is History?

HISTORY… What is it exactly? Pick up any history textbook and you will find as much opinion, if not more, as you do fact. Each textbook or any book on history represents the author’s or editor’s slant on the historical events. They are, what is known, as secondary sources.

They represent the author’s interpretation of the events and are filtered through the lens of the author’s world-view — their philosophical, economic, political and religious perspective. Including the racial and ethnic biases held by the author or editors.

Historical interpretation is also propaganda and myth. History is written primarily by the victors. Although, as in the case of the Civil War, the losers may also write an alternative myth and propaganda.

The myth of Columbus discovering America was taught for years in American schools. Yet the facts show that the Vikings and possibly Irish monks discovered the Americas long before Columbus. And what each group discovered was that the Americas were already populated by non-Europeans.

These non-Europeans had discovered the Americas tens of thousands of years ago migrating across the Bering Straits, when sea levels were much lower. Settling from the Arctic to Tierra del Fuego, creating at times cultures to rival the Egyptians.

Yet American history as taught in the history books has focused on a very narrow time frame and was and continues to be told from the perspective of the WASP — White Anglo-Saxon and Protestant. Unfortunately the facts, as the author of The Lies My Teachers Told points out, don’t support the propaganda and myth.

The irony is that the fact history was from a WASP point of view is itself now a fact of history and needs to be included in the teaching of history as we move forward. Calling into question the method of teaching maybe uncomfortable for many, the role of the historian and historical societies is not to make us comfortable but to preserve and protect historical sources with which fact can be separated from propaganda, myth and bias.

The obligation of every historian, professional or amateur, and every historical society is to ask the question, “What are the facts and what are the sources supporting those facts?” Historians and historical societies should be the sleuths of history ferreting our the facts wherever they lead and however uncomfortable the facts may be.

History can become very personal when a family historian (genealogist) uncovers the proverbial family skeleton or a long-lost connection to a famous historical figure. The reality is that everybody has a context. Everyone’s context is a family and every family’s context is a local and everyone who lives in that locale, no matter how seemingly insignificant, makes up the context of the locale along with the physical nature of the place — whether a village in the Arctic or the Village of Manhattan.

The role of an area historical society is to be the reservoir of their locale’s primary sources. It is incumbent upon them to collect and preserve their local heritage; to be the guardians of that heritage passing it on to the next generation.

But history without relevance is merely a compilation of dry facts. If we cannot make the connection between the events of history and our lives, history is meangingless. Our job as a historical society is not only to preserve the past but to make the connection to the past relevant — to show why X leads to Y; and without X no Y; and without X or Y, no us as we know ourselves at this given moment, as this given moment wouldn’t exist without everything the preceded this moment. We are the sum total of all that has gone before us.

We tend to take it for granted that history has rarely been taught in a relevant way, a way that engages us to recognize history is being made very day — our personal history, our local history, and our national and world history. We are part of making that history passively or actively in small ways and possibly in large ways. In a democracy our small ways of voting impact a larger history. Impacts we neither anticipated or intended.

One exercise in helping recognize the relvance of history is ask the question “What if.” Apply that to any situation whether one’s personal history or history in general and think about the effect that would have had one’s life, had one’s parents not chosen the partners those chose. What would be the consequences? Or how would the course of history change based on the choices made now, individually, locally, nationally and globally. History isn’t just something that happened in the past, history is being made now in every action we take regardless if we recognize it or not.

The decision to turn our Car Superintent’s Office Building into a museum forever changes the Historical Society’s history. It went from a coffee clutch to being recognized on a regional level, a state level and now a national level — history matters.

References:
The Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen
North County, the Making of Minnesota by Mary Lethert Wingerd
The Forgotten History of America by Cormac O’Brien