An Essay by an angry amateur historian.

History is one of the great subjects, perhaps one of the greatest subjects of humanity. It is not only a tale of where we have been, the flaws and victories; but a trajectory of where we can go. However, it is one of the most poorly taught subjects.  Before we delve deeper, I will preface this by saying I have a very American-centric view of how history is taught and “learned.” With that said, having toured museums and spoken with historians from much of the civilized world, I think I may be able to give some broad strokes and insight into the topic of history.

I remember sitting through one of my university courses and hearing a fellow student complain about how boring a topic was. I turned to her and told her the story of what we were studying, not focusing on names and dates. Ignoring education by rote, instead giving her a story, a narrative on an aspect of the War of 1812; a subject I have just a passing interest in. She went from barely scraping by to an excellent student. Why? I helped by shifting her understanding of history to a narrative she could envision.

This is not a unique problem of the early 2000s, but one that has been afflicting generations. My mother once hated history as a subject, now she is avaricious in her pursuit of the history she enjoys. What changed? Again learning history as a story, a narrative through which we all can see the culmination of humanity.

So what went wrong? What made history dry and boring? Easy, those who teach it, who research it, who curate history all have one common thread; ideological capture. That’s not to excoriate historians entirely, but they shoulder how inaccessible history is to the everyman. There is a great irony that the people who go about demanding original sources and first-hand accounts are often the ones who try their hardest to cherry-pick the narrative they wish to craft.

In the American context, one of the greatest villains in teaching history is Howard Zinn and his damnable “A People’s History of The United States.” A man who influenced the textbooks used in many classrooms in the country and whose tendrils have changed how specific figures in American history are viewed. Comrade Zinn is described by Wikipedia as “an American historian, playwright, philosopher, socialist intellectual and World War II veteran. He was chair of the history and social sciences department at Spelman College and a political science professor at Boston University. […] Zinn described himself as “something of an anarchist, something of a socialist. Maybe a democratic socialist.” He wrote extensively about the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, and labor history of the United States.”

I will not belabor every damnable point the man makes, there are far more able deconstructions of his works out there. However “In a 1998 interview with The Associated Press, Professor Zinn acknowledged that he was not trying to write an objective history, or a complete one. He called his book a response to traditional works, the first chapter, not the last, of a new kind of history.” Thus he undermines his position.

A historian should be interested in uncovering a truth, a new revelation of misunderstood history. Not some hubristic dullard who wants to brainwash generations so they will agree with his disdain for  “the textbooks [that] offered the same fundamental nationalist glorification of country”. Zinn as you can clearly understand from his New York Times (Fuck New York) obituary was very open about wanting to craft a new narrative. Not bring forth new points of view for a complete picture, but to undermine a nation and culture.

What better way to undermine a people’s self-image? Painting heroes, icons, and notable figures as villains; who did nothing but exploit the poor and underprivileged. These figures were no longer titans of our past who overcame long odds, and their failings, and had a vision for a better world; no they crushed under their heel any who stood in their way; at least according to Zinn. How is that inspiring a broader understanding? 

However, if this was nothing more than one historian with undue influence over popular discussion we could easily hand-wave away such a prick. Unfortunately, many of our contemporary historians are hyper-focused on deconstructive or revisionist history. While many times it is good practice to re-evaluate moments in history, Custer’s Last Stand, once a heroic tragedy now is viewed as a blunder by a General with more ego than talent. There is far too often a desire to use modern morals, rather than an understanding of the period through the use of contemporary sources. This practice not only does a disservice to the subject of research, it does a disservice to the intellect of the audience. Treating everyone, not the “historian” as an infantile moron.

There is also a very dark undercurrent in modern historians, especially American historians; as to reducing access to a museum or a book. Scrubbing history out of the public mind’s eye, I would liken this to losing a family member. A modern historian would tell you that you can only read an obituary or view a tombstone. Those personal experiences? That gift they went out of their way to buy you on a vacation? All of that needs to be curated away. That person you knew must be reduced to their most basic elements.

History is being stolen from the everyman, it is being taken under the guise of the public good and only after the visceral meaning has been removed, can it be given back to the public. You, reader, are not some incompetent boob who needs to be protected from the boogeyman of historic reality.

On the conversation of accessibility to the general public is the idea of living history, while often the domain of the amateur historian, there are a lot of museums and events that use living historians to give a tactile aspect of history to the general public. A public whose reference point for global events starts when they are born or aware, a reference point any historian should want to expand. However, a 12-year-old is not going to sit down and digest an 800-page tome on the Battle of Gettysburg or a political dissection of Napoleon. They will however respond to being able to touch a uniform, or helmet from the Great War. They will be able to see the billowing clouds of black powder smoke obscuring a reenacted battle. 

Yes, there are terrible living historians, they are easily disproven; whereas the abhorrent historians can safely sit in their ivory towers and disdain the plebs, too unenlightened about history to know.  When everything is reduced to nothing more than names, dates, and glass-encased displays; is that truly educating the masses? 

There is a duty to history, to our ancestors; whether they are villains, heroes, or just one of the unnamed who pressed forward; to tell a story that can inspire future generations to move mankind forward. We must unfurl history from its encasement and wave it proudly! It is not to be remanded to the dusty tomes of a library but shone as a beacon to the world.

Credits

Jared and Corin, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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