Sunday, February 12, 2012

A Thought about the writing of history

Cleo, the muse of history

There are some ideas that we tend to share when we read works of history:

  • that the story told in the work is important (or at least that the reader is given adequate opportunity to decide whether the story is important to him before spending undue time on the work),
  • that the explanatory factors adduced in the work are in fact causally related to the effect that they are purported to have,
  • that there are not other, perhaps more important explanatory factors that should have been included in the work but were not.
History narrative should be not only a recounting of events but also an explanation of why they occurred in the way that they did so.

While chatting my friend Allen mentioned that when he was a boy in school, they studied American history year after year, always repeating the same materials. The American Revolution, the Civil War, etc. each presented as a separate topic unrelated to what had happened earlier and to what happened later, each presented independent of what was happening in other places. To make matters worse, the class never completed the text, never getting to modern history. I must admit that my schoolboy history experience was similar, although I found the Civil War novels of Joseph Altsheler to complement the oversimplified histories of California and of the Founding Fathers on the east coast.

That kind of history writing violates the most basic rules. The main lesson of history, as far as I can see, is that the decisions of the present are contingent on the events of the past. How does one understand the American Revolution without understanding its roots in the Seven Year War and its American phase, the French and Indian War. How does one understand it, without understanding the importance of the Caribbean to the European colonial powers. How does one understand the Civil War without dealing seriously with the elephant in the room, slavery, and the failures of the Founding Fathers to come to grip with slavery in the Constitution. How, indeed, are kids to properly understand the founding of the United States from books that deal with the founding fathers as faultless heroes rather than flawed human beings.

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