On Historical Revisionism
Another school year is upon us, inviting more debate about what to teach and who gets to decide. I’m nostalgic for the way my high school teachers had us memorize portions of the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, and the Gettysburg Address. Such texts would provide a shared basis to argue the role of government. Unfortunately, I don’t think abandoning memorization is what traditionalists mean when they decry historical revisionism. Their nostalgia is for school days when America was always best and only white men mattered.
The past doesn’t change, but our understanding of it does. Historians find new evidence and ask new questions. Not every new finding can be added to every class. Life is too short; judgment calls are unavoidable. Geography, grade level, and current events may properly influence what to emphasize. But to suppress new findings because they challenge the accuracy of what we were taught long ago is to lie by omission.
“All history is revisionist,” historian James M. Banner Jr. wrote in Humanities magazine. No history can be purely objective. Even a simple medieval chronicler had to decide which events to list and how to describe them. The job of historians is to study and interpret evidence, which is almost always incomplete. Facts can never speak for themselves. To treat the history in our childhood textbooks as the one true story—and any reinterpretation as heresy—is to equate history with the unchanging past. It’s a fantasy to think such history is even possible.
8/22/2022 08:08:17 am
As part of my work with an anti-racism and equigty group to which I am committed, .I have been delving into the alternate stories of those ignored groups and individuals who have been left out of our traditional American history books The truth is, that what we normally think of as American history is really the story of white western Europens on this continent. The real story is much more complex and not always easy for us white folks to hear.
8/22/2022 08:18:26 pm
Pat, well put. Back in February 2021 I blogged about how watching Henry Louis Gates's PBS documentary on Reconstruction turned upside down much of what I was taught in my West Virginia high school long ago. History is written by the winners, and also by the literate (a possible reason the heroic Confederate view of the Civil War still has a strong hold). When we stretch to look at history from less dominant perspectives, we get a better rounded history and also grow in the process.
Leave a Reply.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.