Personally I feel like everyone should study history. It is one of those topics that is taken for granted. Many people disregard history but don’t realize how much history shapes and defines the world we live. Many conflicts are based on certain interpretations of history and many cultures define their identity on a certain view of history. But what goes into studying history? What difficulties do we face when we construct our historical narratives?
Unfortunately we do not have a perfect recording of the past. We have to piece together a picture from what little scraps history has decided to leave us. We have to reconstruct the kind of world our ancestors lived in and we have to grasp at the motivations and thoughts of those long gone.
There are many sources we rely on to reconstruct the past from excavated villages or cities to written works. All sources are up to certain amount of interpretation and several often have to be used in conjunction with each other.
The trouble with certain sources such as written ones is how much scrutiny are we supposed to treat them with? Often we have sources that talk about one period of time but were written much latter. The gospels were written 30-50 years after the estimated death of Jesus. Are certain elements of the gospels reflective of the time of Jesus or the time they were written? The war involving Troy mentioned in the Iliad was thought to be a myth but then archaeological evidence showed that there might be a grain of truth to the story. But how much of the Iliad could actually be trusted as a historical source?
Even if we decide to trust a certain source we have to take into account biases or misinformation present in the source. How much of the descriptions about the Germanic people can we trust from the Romans or from Christian missionaries? Or descriptions of the Native populations from early European colonizers to the Americas?
Archaeological evidence can also be difficult to work with especially if you have no other sources to work with it. Collaboration is important when it comes to reconstructing the past. Using several sources together can help create a clearer picture of a certain moment in the past while helping us to see what biases might exist in certain sources. With the use of several sources we can piece together a picture that is rarely ever completed.
The Many vs The Individual
One question that arises from studying history is the question of whether the social-political currents of a time or the individual is of greater influence. Would have the Reformation still have taken place without Martin Luther? Would the Second World War still have happened without Hitler? Both the Reformation and World War 2 are intimately tied with these individuals but they were riding on social-political currents that had been bubbling to a point for a while.
During Luther’s time the populace was fed up with the Catholic Church and its abuses. Some individuals tried to break away but such movements often failed. There was outcry for reform. Was Luther simply the first one to pop that bubble or was there something about his character or place in society to push for what became the Reformation? Luther’s actions led to the formation of other denominations that were able to survive and reforms within the Catholic Church. Some have argued that if Luther did not start the Reformation others would have simply filled his role; the social-political climate was there it just needed someone, anyone to pop that bubble.
Europe was still tense after the end of the First World War. Germany resented its treatment under the Treaty of Versailles. Economically it was in shambles. And the efforts of those in power to maintain a stable Germany was failing. Some debate has been had on what a Europe without Hitler would have looked like. Some have argued, due to other factors in Europe, war would have broken out. But that this war would have been a vastly different war than what we ended up with. Others have argued that it was Hitler’s charisma and ambition that drove Europe to war, that without him Germany might have still have flexed some military muscle but it would have been on a much smaller scale.
One of the issues with examining what is more of driving force in history is it always makes us play the what if game. In the end all we have is what have. History played out the way it did. By trying to figure out what might have happened if certain factors were different we toe the line of speculative fiction. What is likely is that some moments are driven more by a con-flux of factors and other times are driven by individuals.
What does history mean to us?
Everyone has their own history. This becomes apparent when history enters public discourse and we see how everyone uses history to craft a part of their identity. In the 1990s the Smithsonian tried to create a display to remember the bombing of Hiroshima. There was a proposed 300 page script that was supposed to go along with this display. Those that crafted it tried to be balanced and unbiased but when it was revealed there was a backlash. Some felt the script sympathized with the Japanese too much and that the valor and courage of U.S. soldiers wasn’t explored enough. Those that crafted the narrative for the display were accused of rewriting history and trying to make it more politically correct. In the end the original exhibit that was envisioned was done away and replaced with a smaller more low key exhibit.
More recently there was debate over changes the Texas State Board of Education wanted to make to its text book standards. There was a lot of argument of what elements of American History should be focused on and how should somethings be presented. Why should country music be talked about but not hip-hop? How do we handle unsavory topics of American History such as the abuse of Native American cultures and slavery? There is a certain interpretation of history that is the correct American view. To interpret it a different way is to rewrite it and to dishonor our heritage.
People tend to think that their view of history is the only correct view before realizing it can be perceived differently by different people. A white man will perceive the history of slavery differently than a black man. Even if the white man understands and is disgusted by that history and views it as an atrocity he will not have to live under its shadow like the black man. The black man has to struggle against the effects that slavery and its attitudes have left behind.
History also tends to age. As we move further away from a certain point in history our concept of that time becomes distorted. People are remembered differently. The founding fathers become idolized versions of what they really were. Golden ages that never existed are remembered. People long for the 1950s that never existed. Wars and battles become myth. The war that involved Troy becomes immortalized in the Iliad.
History can help us to avoid repeating the same mistakes. But this rarely is the case. The human race continues to play out its depravity in war, subjugation, political, social and economic abuses. But we should continue to study history in case we are able to avoid those horrors again. We also need it. There is a need in the human spirit to try and understand were we came from and to try to place ourselves in the fabric of human history. But we must be careful to not tie ourselves down too much with one interpretation of history. If we can learn to see history from different perspective we might be able to better understand other people, other cultures better. We can become a more unified people through history and maybe one day avoid the horrors that we continue to repeat over and over again.