The Nature of History and the History of History

Professional, university-trained historians are brand new in the scope of the planet’s history. Using the analogy of the entire Earth’s history in a day where humans arrive at 11:58:43 p.m., modern history would arrive at something like 11:59:59 p.m.

For most of history, conceptions of history (see, we need different words in the English language for history as in the past, and history as in the study of!) were not necessarily intended to be accurate. This holds true for historians and non-historians. They were intended to provide hope, guidance, establish authority. They were narratives about where they had been, where they were, and where they hoped to go – with an emphasis on those deemed to be brave and right. They were based on “real” events and feelings, hopes and fears but were myth, not history. “Contrary to colloquial usage, a myth is not a story that is patently untrue. Rather, a myth is a story that speaks of meaning and purpose, and for that reason it speaks truth to those who take it seriously.” Additionally, to the general public, history is frequently seen as “dead” and something that does not influence the present, as this quotation articulates: “THE PAST IS DEAD. It is done. It is over. It is finished. It is dust. It is a new day today.”

Modern, professional, university-trained historians first emerged in the late nineteenth century in the context of the Gilded Age. Connected to the rise of a new and powerful phase of industrialism and the rise of other social sciences, “History” became a professional, academic discipline. For the first time, professional historians emerged and strived for objective, accurate, and evidence-based accounts, accounts that would be free of mythology. Of course, postmodernism has helped us recognize that no one is free of bias, but there remains a huge difference in striving to be free of bias and purposely being biased.

As a professional, modern historian, I define History (the study of) as not what happened in the past but a story about what happened based on available evidence, resources, interests, and prevailing mores/prejudices, for example. Additionally, I define history (the past) as everything that has ever happened, didn’t happen, everything that has been thought, etc., from less than a millisecond ago. To me, there is no such thing as “the present” – everything is the past or the future. I recognize the reciprocal relationship between biology, physics, and geology, for instance, and what happens or does not happen. The relationship between all of the pasts (earlier today or earlier this millennial) and the future is also an important reciprocal relationship. Finally, I do not see myself as a “history buff.” “History buffs” tend to be more concerned with dates, facts, and events. I care about cultural expressions, thoughts, feelings, significance, and change or lack of change over time and place.

Since the rise of professional history, with some exceptions (notably Cold War-era consensus scholarship), there has been an increasingly large gap between academic history and history as generally thought of by everyone else (“everyone else” includes lay historians).

Public schools, politicians, and (frequently) museums promote conceptions of the past that serve ideologically-driven agendas. These uses of the past also have the effect of making most people, especially the majority, or the targeted audience in the case of politicians feel proud of who they are and the nation in which they have citizenship.

For example, the last time I visited the Bullock Texas State History Museum, the entire “comprehensive” museum of Texas’s history had ONE mention of enslavement and this mention was inaccurate. Additionally, seemingly more than ever—given the power of present-day mass media—politicians (especially, WASP male heterosexual cisgendered politicians) manipulate anything and everything to control others discourage any kind of critical thinking. Check out this article and this article (HT to my friend, Daniel, the author of this blog for the second reference-link goes to his article about Carl Sagan) for information about what children are learning in schools using books from the A Beka Book company, which “is one of the three most widely used Protestant fundamentalist textbook publishers in the country.”

I’m regularly alarmed at what people believe about the past. I hear parts of conversations while eating out and people have no idea that what they are saying is simply wrong. Of course, there are a variety of perspectives and interpretations on everything, but we know from evidence, for example, that Black men have faced institutionalized, government-sponsored discrimination en masse since well before the nation’s founding. People still want to believe that there is no such thing as White Privilege or that Black people “just enjoy getting intro trouble.”

This gap relates to the conception of history most have held across time and place: History is not supposed to be accurate per se. It’s suppose to reinforce power structures and make those in the majority group feel better about themselves. Although, this process of constructing deliberate historical narratives to reinforce the privilege of some goes largely unnoticed and is an unconscious process, at least to a large degree.

In this blog, I said one way to be sure students will continue hating history is to insist students abandon myths by which they have lived. As history professors and educators, we have to realize that what we teach and require of our students (methodologically and instructionally) is contrary to everything else they have ever encountered (and will likely ever encounter). We know that physiologically, students humans are not capable of easily changing such deeply ingrained practices for both themselves and for their culture and world. The historical unconscious is a powerful force that guides who we are and what our culture is without us fully grasping the how and why.

For instance, public schools and politicians (especially, if not basically exclusively, in the South) still teach that the Civil War was over states’ rights. This is not accurate. We know from secession documents, soldier diaries and letters, and speeches, such as the Cornerstone Speech, that slavery was the cause. Students, however, really don’t understand why we are telling them something they have always taken as a core truth is wrong. They can’t fully internalize and change such a belief because we say so and because we show them evidence. To them, the “evidence” is that their parents, grandparents, school teachers for over a decade said it was over states’ rights. It takes an exceptional student and willingness to break free of one’s culture to rise above mythology and move into the study of  history.

This kind of “adapting” is no different than the “adapting” (e.g., abridging, changing, combining) we do everyday, depending on who we are talking to or where we are, when asked how are day went or about some past personal experience. All narratives are equally legitimate history and are likewise not meant to be accurate per se but are meant to present specific fronts of sorts as desired based on hopes, fears, and goals.

We still, of course, want to and have to teach evidence-based history, but we have to be careful not to offended students and potentially turn them off from history forever. It’s a tricky boundary. One way I have found to help ease this barrier is to focus on cultural artifacts from the eras under study and to also focus on historical memory. We can help students examine various narratives, how and why they developed, and the purpose(s) they serve. This is also the point at which history (the study of) fully becomes not just a social science but also a humanity. 

Be sure to also see History Repeats Itself, Why I Study History, and History as a Science and my other articles about History.

Also, Check out these two articles on Nick Sacco’s blog on similar topics.

The Reciprocal Relationship Between the Past and Present

Reflections on Museum Interpretation and Audience Agency