Exercises in the Philosophy of History: Place and the Narrative

Have you ever heard of Lind, Adams County, Washington? Have you ever heard of Hawai’i? 

I’m guessing you have heard of the states Hawai’i and Washington but have not heard of the very small town, Lind.

But, how much do you actually know, do any of us actually know about Hawai’i or Washington?

Our collective historical, economic, political knowledge has generally retained an East-coast, big-city, White bias. 

While I have written that I really enjoy the history survey courses, these courses by design do not possibly cover anywhere near every event. And, I’m increasingly interested in exploring:

  • to what degree does the shared “grand narrative” (or “metanarrative”) of United States History actually include anything about Hawai’i (besides its initial occupation by businessmen and then the military of the United States)?
  • to what degree does the shared, general narrative actually apply to the 564 people of Lind? 
  • to what degree do we miss valuable information by using and needing metanarratives? 
  • to what degree are people alienated when and if they do not understand relevancy and feel included?  

(And by the way, relevancy and inclusion are important for learners of any age, especially adults.)

As a result, I’m beginning to reach the conclusion that we might have a responsibility to begin specific conversations with students about who and what our historical narratives leave out and maybe even to have mini-lessons that look at towns like Lind.

Additionally, I am rethinking how I teach Texas History. So far, one of the major themes has been “What is Texas History?” because I want them to see how that “Texas” is a geopolitical area. Events, peoples, and ideas do not begin or end with human-drawn boundaries. Now, I am planning to add a theme of regularly analyzing to what degree the metanarrative of United States History applies or does not apply to the people of Texas and to even take a look at some small towns in Texas and ask to what degree does the metanarrative of Texas apply or not.

To look at a specific example, I love the film Gold Diggers of 1933. This is an excellent film that easily lends itself to historical analysis, and I use two clips from it in my HIST1302 class. Film theory says that this film gives us a picture of the hopes and fears of society. I agree with this theory to a large extent and my research relies on it, but it is still important to ask how these hopes and fears actually apply and differ according to exact times, places, and peoples. Clearly, Gold Diggers of 1933 does not speak to the hopes and fears of Mexican Americans in the 1930s who faced an ever-growing amount of racism, but does it speak to the hopes and fears of people in Texas? in Lind? in the 1930s? 

On the other hand, cities around the nation are increasingly becoming homogenous. The picture below basically represents “Anywhere USA.” Once cities “look” like every other town and corporate offices know instantly everything that is happening at their locations hundreds and hundreds of miles from each other, do grand narratives become “truer”? more relevant?  

2015-08-06 13.30.35

Historical exercises and questions are always important, help all of us understand the ways in which History is constructed, and illustrate why historians are not “history buffs.”

Andrew Joseph Pegoda