Understanding our history
How many of us thought we were getting a pretty good history or social studies education as we grew up? Probably most. In fact, to judge by social media right now, a certain segment of the population believes they received a thorough, comprehensive and irreproachable national and world history education.
But let’s look back on it, and the belief system it helped set up, shall we?
In reading about European explorers, the wording often went something along the lines of “the first man to (insert exploratory accomplishment here),” right?
And we all just … believed it. Nevermind that it was clear other human beings were already in the places that were being “discovered.” What was often meant by “first man” in those books was “first well-funded white man.” But to the authors of many of those history books, everybody but those well-funded white men were just a little less than human, and therefore didn’t count.
Before anyone gets all stirred up, I’m not trying to revise anything, or cast aspersions on those who did, indeed, accomplish fantastic things. I am trying to make us think about even those seemingly small choices in wording that shaped the way many of us think about the world, our history, and our place in it.
Younger readers may have begun to read and be taught history in school that included better explanations of slavery, Reconstruction/segregation, genocide, internment camps; labor rights, women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights movements; many of the Founding Fathers as deists … there is a great deal of our understanding history that has rightly evolved in recent years.
But for several generations, the history that was taught (and that so many cherish and are getting worked up over right now) had been written by the “victors.” That is, had been written by those who had found a way to preserve their positions as being “in charge.” Further, some of it, somehow, had been written by those who were not “victors” in the literal sense — they lost a Civil War — but still managed to come out a little higher up on the socio-cultural ladder than those whose stories got left out.
Learning more, filling in the gaps, exploring the rest of the story does not “erase” history. We make an enormous mistake when we believe that if we don’t talk about something, it didn’t happen; and, the reverse, when we believe that finding out more “cancels” anything.
Think for a moment about what we KNOW we were taught in school that was either unintentionally wrong or an outright propagandist lie. Who remembers being told the United States is a democracy? (It’s not). Or that slavery was unique to the states that became the Confederacy? (It wasn’t). Or that Cristopher Columbus “discovered America?” (He didn’t. Not by anyone’s interpretation.)
What else did we learn that was wrong, or maybe just twisted a little to serve a certain narrative? Anyone who has studied history beyond what was taught up to the 12th grade has come across at least one thing that made them say “Hey, wait a minute …”
Because it is unlikely that most people are going to start searching out opportunities to enhance or, better yet, call into question their understanding of history, it would be nice to think that they would at least be willing to admit THEIR history is personal and very limited.
Such an admission is a first step to acknowledging another person’s understanding of history might be different — and that person’s different understand is not an erasure of others; nor is it less important. But it is worth exploring.
Christina Myer is executive editor of The Parkersburg News and Sentinel. She can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org