13. History

I just had a talk with my father. I told him about this book, and he suggested that I write an article about history. I belong to a generation that wasn’t going to trust anyone over thirty, but we changed our minds about fifteen years ago. So I’ll write about history, but not because my father told me to.
Henry Ford said that history is bunk. I don’t like much of what I know about Henry Ford, and he probably didn’t mean what I mean, but a lot of history qualifies as bunk. Robert Fulton didn’t invent the steamboat. Christopher Columbus may have discovered America, but so did plenty of other people, before and after Columbus. People are still discovering and rediscovering it today, and I’ll bet there are plenty of people who will never discover it, some of whom live here. History has all kinds of reasons for being bunk, and it’s good to keep them in mind as we teach history.
For one thing, history was written by people. That fact, in itself, suggests a certain amount of fictionalization. Ask two people what significant things happened yesterday, or even this morning, and you will get two very different stories, even if they are in the same household. Even if they were joined at birth and never separated.
Furthermore, after history is written, it is selectively published, so the human element again comes into play. By the time it gets to children, Columbus was a brave, committed thinker who set out against all odds to prove to a very skeptical populace that the world was round. The pilgrims settled in Massachusetts in a way that allowed the native population to blend peacefully with the newcomers. The civil war was fought to free the slaves.
A brief look at the widespread dishonesty in history books can lead one to give up on history. But hold on. In one way, it’s interesting to find out what has happened, or, more accurately, how people seem to have interpreted events. Most of what we learn in history or any other discipline ought to have that going for it. If it’s interesting, other reasons for studying it stand a fighting chance.
In another way, history can teach us things we need to know in order to keep going, and maybe make things better. I like quoting Lily Tomlin (or her ghostwriter): “Maybe if we listened to history, it would stop repeating itself.”
An honest approach to history would look more like “Rashomon” than “The History of Our Nation,” by one of the regular textbook publishers. “Rashomon,” for those of you who don’t know, is a movie in which the same story is told from four different points of view. But four points of view are not enough; every moment of significance was lived by many people, and each person may live and relive the moment in different ways.
So maybe history is bunk, and maybe our efforts to debunk history are also bunk. But closing our eyes to the past and attempting to reinvent the wheel as we blaze a trail into the future, never trusting anyone over forty-five, is bunk, too.

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