Thursday, November 28, 2019

Understanding the Roots of the War on History. By Richard Winders

Understanding the Roots of the War on History. By Richard Winders
Excerpt: "Our first contribution is one of omission. The time-honored stories of exploration and the biographies of heroes are left out." Charles A. and Mary Beard, The History of the United States (1921)
I am a historian by trade. One of the most important moments I experienced in my graduate training was when a professor explained that her doctorate was in the “philosophy of history,” not history itself. It is an important distinction because people equate history with mastering historical trivia. The possibility that there is a philosophy of or a way to think about history is rarely raised. Actually, there are several different philosophies of history—often at odds with each other—not just one universal philosophy. During the early years of the American republic, history helped create a national identity and instill positive virtues in the public. Parson Mason Locke Weems turned to George Washington’s famous cherry tree-chopping incident to invent a memorable fable to teach children honesty. Other contemporaries agreed with this approach. Early feminist educator Emma Willard wrote in The History of the United States, Or, American Republic that “The most important advantage of the study of history, is improvement in individual and national virtue . . . [especially in] the history of the American Republic.” These authors presented the Founding Fathers and military heroes as role models. The fact that white males dominated the nation’s early historical narrative reflected society as it existed at that time. Nevertheless, the pursuit of republican ideology, conveyed by words like liberty and freedom, was believed to be the engine that drove the United States toward a new enlightened age. (The writer makes a point, that people have always tended to teach history in particular ways to inculcate particular ideas in the minds of their students.  The same history can be taught from different points of view, with different emphases, and different use of facts, or different uses of manipulation, to support the agenda of the person doing the writing. The example we know best is that people can teach about the American involvement in Viet Nam from one extreme of the USA as the champion of liberty for others, fighting only too carefully and considerately to avoid unnecessary destruction and loss of life, to the USA as a neocolonialist power fighting stupidly and extremely brutally to impose its will on an unwilling people. I guess I am an idealist, because I believe it's possible to try to study history and write about it from an at least reasonably objective point of view.  That an intelligent person can do research carefully without major preconceptions about what will be found and personal feelings about what they want to find, and after accumulating a lot of information, then and then only thinking about what conclusions the information leads to.  A true historian is not a propagandist, but a searcher for truth. Sadly, it is most certainly true that propaganda is a good deal of what we can find today in supposedly objective news reporting as well as in historical publications.  My unfavorite example is Nick Turse, who decided to write about a predetermined conclusion that American troops in Viet Nam were pretty much a horrible collection of gleeful war criminals.  That's an extreme example, the Burns/Novick "documentary" is a much more subtle example of slanted history. I wonder what they teach History majors in the big colleges these days.  I'd hope for a pounding about objectivity, careful, painstaking research, etc, but these days that is probably quite optimistic. --Del

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