I still remember my days in graduate school. We had many discussions about that foreign country that is the past. History was not just about diaries and newspapers. It was not just about battles and political treaties. Yes. It was about that, but it was so much more. It was about power relationships, and who told the story. It was, in short, about finding a coherent reason for the past, and the present.
We learned about Herodotus, the father of history. And then we got to pick the story apart. It was not like he was the first person to record anything for posterity. Nor was he the first to travel around the ancient world and put down what he saw, and try to make heads or tails of it. He just happened to be the one we in the West designated as the father of history. The title itself is pretentious, but both the Greeks and Romans were the pinnacle of the ancient world. None of this was accidental. It was a refresher on what we teach people. It was a source of discussion.
This was a graduate seminar, and it was us, lucky fifteen, starting a Masters degree. So we were entrusted with actually asking this question. Was Herodotus the father of history? What does this mean? Why do we even consider him the only one? The past is a foreign country, and we were to make heads or tails of it. We, as professional historians, were to be granted the keys to the kingdom. We were to learn the tools of the trade, and among them were rules of how history worked. There were assumptions, many of which have come under question over the last twenty-five years.
I must also say, I enjoyed those seminars greatly. I loved the questions, and the reading assignments, Over the years a lot of the fights within the profession made sense. Why? The general public is now getting an introduction to these issues with Confederate statues and a far-right that is both literally and figuratively up in arms over overturning them. History is not just about musty papers or diaries. It is about control.
What is History
This usually has a very simple definition. It is a telling of past events. At least this was the definition used in my social science book back in primary school. For most people this is sufficient. After all, what else could history be? There is a lot more to it than just this simple definition.
So let me offer you a working definition, that has a lot more complexity to it. While history is the telling of past events. It should take into account power relationships, both present, and past, as well as economic relationships. History is a telling of lives, but not just those of political and military leaders. It must also look at the common person, and how that person relates to the whole of society. It should also be about the stories we tell each other, and the events we chose to remember, and how we choose to remember them.
This is far more complex and it implies a lot more than just reading in musty archives. It is about lives, complex and all, with relationships and connections. It is about both mapping the past and traveling to a world that is unlike ours. Their experiences are relevant to our present. They may not have been last week but today they could. The pandemic is a good example. The 1918 Influenza Pandemic was confined to the past until it dominated our present. COVID made it relevant to us. Some of the patterns we saw in 1918, repeated across the last year.
There is another truism of history and power elites. Those who control the present seek to control the past and what we teach from that past. This was not just something George Orwell wrote in 1984. It is an observation of the profession that was very prescient. This is precisely how history becomes political. Blind spots in historical research are not accidental. They never have been. This is also how things like the Lost Cause come to be, and how we forget why the civil war was fought. Jubal. Early understood this very well. In 1865 he wrote :
He warned that former Confederates must try to get the correct version of the war into print immediately because “We all know how hard it is to eradicate early impressions.” This is central in the current public debate about the history of the country. For that matter, the place of Western History within global history. For the far right there is no question about this. Western history, by that read white, colonial history, is the only that matters. For them anything that adds context to the history of slavery for example, is a cynical attempt to hijack it by woke people.
If all your knowledge about history is what you learned in primary, secondary, and even some college, you will have deep blind spots. It is not your fault, since this instruction is basic for the creation of national myths. In this, the United States is not the only country. All national histories celebrate the nation as unique. All have heroes, and all those heroes are perfect people.
it does not matter if they are the fathers (and it is almost always the fathers) of Mexico, the United States, or more recent nations. These are people who are given very special treatment. At times it borders on the ridiculous. For example, the idea that George Washington could not tell a lie is an extreme example of this. But he was not alone. This Washingtonian legend makes him almost a god. He has no defects, and could never lie. Oh never mind he ran a very successful spy network, which requires lying.
Collective Memory and History
Humans are storytellers by nature. Story centers us. We enter that mythic space, and likely this happened before the species left Africa. History is one kind of story, and it preserves the collective of who a group is. These stories are essential for the identity of a people. Whether these are tribal groups gathering around the fire at night, or modern-day nations with archives, and trained historians.
Let me make this clear. While Herodotus is considered the father of history, this is a Eurocentric view of history. It places Western Civilization at the center. In some ways, this is the only history that matters. This is accepted in the far-right as well. According to them, the only civilization worth a dam is western civilization. This is western chauvinism, and it ignores whole slews of intellectual and material achievements by others. Even when those achievements are part of who we are. For example, the rise of Algebra was not a western thing. The numbers we use are not Roman numerals, but Arab numerals. They allowed for faster development of Maths. The zero was not a concept in the West, but both of Maya and Arab, and South Asian mathematicians. All these are essential for our modern-day scientific system.
There are other fathers (and they were mostly fathers) of history. Moreover, the modern way of studying history is a product of the Enlightenment. There was an attempt at one point to make it more scientific, and some disciplines within it are more rigorous than others. Intellectual history and economic history come to mind. The reason for this is the methods involved and the story told.
Intellectual historians are trying to see how culture developed. Some of the questions include things like how did people come up with ideas? How did their way of looking at the world influence the present? This foreign country does interfere in ours, every day. Past ideas connect to the present. In the United States, the Founding Fathers are central to our understanding of our present. We live by the documents they created and will die by them as well. This is at the heart of the originalist argument in the courts even if they violate the spirit of these documents often.
Realize the Founders were slave owners. They lived in a very unequal society. Yet, at least some of them were able to conceive of a different world, at least in theory. I don’t think they expected the country to develop the way it has. Women and non-property owners, let alone people of color voting, would be very much outside their experience. No matter how much Abigail Adams asked her husband to include women in the national project.
This is important. Thomas Jefferson conceived of a nation of freemen, who were yeoman farmers. Every person, and by that I mean white person, was to get a square of land and be one with the land. The highly urbanized world we live in would be utterly alien to him, and the rest of that generation. Why? We are the first generation in human history that mostly lives in cities. This is a critical change, that has disconnected us from our food sources for example.
History is about collective identity. Ask any human group and they will tell you their story. Whether it is a national story, like that of the United States, or the story of Exodus, or that of any tribe still living in the Amazon. We all have stories and those stories mark us as members of a group. They can span the range of a small group of people, all the way to the nation and increasingly the world. We share events like the 1918 pandemic, global conflicts, or the present pandemic we all share. These are becoming part of a global identity. But so are family stories, that affect as few as ten people and are passed down the family tree.
History is a tool of identity and it can be used for either good deeds or bad ones. It can create a sense of we, or it can divide us. It can be very controversial, as we are witnessing right now in this country. The 1619 project is controversial in some quarters, as is the taking down of statues. Both represent the rejection of the Lost Cause and the rewiring of national identity.
In other words, history can be a tool for both good and evil.
The Politics of Teaching History
This brings us to the teaching of history. Especially in lower levels where national myths are established. This is exactly when history is very political. This can continue all the way to the lower-level classes in college. This is why school boards, education boards, and even textbook boards matter. They set the agenda of what we teach, and what we ignore. None of this is accidental. This is why Republicans have attempted to capture school boards across the country. This is also the reason behind taking control of textbooks.
First off, history does not lie outside national institutions. It is the one discipline that helps explain institutions and the social order to both young and old. This is why it is not outside national or local politics. When President Donald Trump said that he wanted to have history taught that speaks to the greatness of the country, this was a political act. What he wanted is exactly what other authoritarian leaders have done. This is part of a far-right project that seeks to exclude the teaching of what in the eyes of the far-right tarnish the country. These are questions of fact that are not part of the regular American myth. Some of these include the questions of slavery and genocide of first peoples.
This is where history becomes part of a larger program, to work through national demons. This is exactly where things like Black History Month, Jewish History Month, Women’s History Month. Hispanic History Month comes in. It’s a way to bring to the attention of students the multitude of histories within the nation. There are many identities, and all of these make one democratic nation. E Pluribus Unum. Of many, one becomes real in the classroom. This idea excludes the concept of superiority of one over the rest. Or at least they should.
This brings me to a question often asked by some. Why not a white history month? Quite simply, because most of the history pupils learn in school is what benefits whites in this nation. It is a history from the point of view of the majority, not any of these other groups. Black History Month became controversial precisely because it highlighted the history of an oppressed people. The 1619 project is a lightning rod because it again highlights the original sin of the United States.
White Supremacy and History
This brings me to how we teach history. This is not as bad as it used to be because of things like the aforementioned Black History Month and so forth. But we still erase a lot of history from our textbooks. For example, the history of World War Two rarely includes the Red Ball Express or the Tuskegee fighter squadron.
It generally speaking does not include the Nissei either, or the 442 Regimental Combat Team, never mind they were the most decorated army unit of the war. You will have a lot of the Screaming Eagles, and Bastogne, but little about the action of Japanese Americans who served while the family was behind the wire. We speak in whispers about the internment of Japanese Americans because it is embarrassing to have concentration camps while we fought to liberate others. However, these camps have become a tool of the far-right to embarrass Democrats.
This is not limited to military history. Multiple areas of American history have been carefully curated to brush over, or bury, the actions of minorities, or women. Why these history months matter. They are an attempt to restore that history. But this also creates a problem. Children, in particular, do not see themselves, or their minority groups, in that history. They do not have anybody to identify themselves with.
In recent years Thanksgiving has become a lightning rod because the story is pure myth, not unlike George Washington who could not tell a lie. The latter has left the history books. This is good. The holiday could be preserved, without this story of the pilgrims. It is increasingly a secular holiday.
The other major example of this is the Western Civ course in the first-year college. This is a product of the Cold War, and perhaps it is time to replace this with a more global view of history. One where global achievements enter the teaching of history, not just the West. In the age of climate change, we need to have a more global view, because it will take the species to save itself. Having one set of history placed above others is not just silly, but counterintuitive once you learn those connections. As I stated above, the numbers you use every day, are Arab numerals. There are many other connections to other cultures across the world. We are not alone, and it is time to acknowledge them. We in the United States could start by teaching history from the time humans first settled the continent. History does not start in 1492.