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.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.