Sunday, October 21, 2007

Genealogy and History Thoughts - Column Five

Why is history important? To me, history is an important subject to study. I realize that is an understatement since I am majoring in history. On the other hand, though, I can't help but notice articles that mention the lack of knowledge of U. S. history by the peers of my generation, and I am disturbed by these reports.

And why should I care? I care not just because I might go into an occupation that deals with history but also because I am worried about whether the truth will be preserved. I'm worried about the preservation of the truth not just because people are forgetting their past, but also I notice that there are people who twist the facts to make it fit their political views. Politically, I am a conservative, but I'll admit, this occurs on both sides of the political spectrum. (Sorry. I didn't want to bring politics into this blog. I have another blog where I post my political beliefs, so I try to keep politics and genealogy as separate as much as I can.) I realize there are parts of U. S. history that are not pleasant, but those parts still have to be told. I want to the truth to be told, so that future generations won't make the same mistakes that have been made in the past. And I want the truth to be told because textbooks don't always include both sides of the story. Many times, historical events are portrayed in history textbooks in a simplified matter when in reality, the events were more complicated than portrayed. In case anyone is wondering, I mainly notice this in regards to with the more recent past. (Holocaust denial would fall into this category, even though most teachers teach that the Holocaust did occur. I still worry because someone in the future might be able to get away with teaching denial as fact in the future, and if the lack knowledge of history continues to occur in future generations, that might happen.) Among the twists that I have noticed:
  • Apollo 11's landing on the moon. There are people who argue that this did not happen. (I'm serious. I had a high school teacher who believed this.)
  • The Great Depression and FDR's New Deal. There are people who believe that the New Deal pulled us out of the Great Depression, when it was World War Two that actually finally pulled the U. S. out of it. (I've actually had a teacher and a high school student tell me it was FDR's policies, while I have read articles - and spoke to my grandparents - that stated that it was World War Two that pulled the economy out of the depression.)
  • And some of the events of the last twenty or thirty years of U. S. history have been distorted in books according to the author's political bias.

When I speak of distortions of history, I am not talking about information that comes to light through the declassification of documents. I do not consider reanalyzing a historical event in the light of newly released documents a distortion of history. What I consider a distortion of history is when the the facts are incorrectly portrayed or when the facts presented are so slanted that only one side of history is presented. (This is where the political bias usually shines through.) There is almost always more than one perception of a historical event. Teaching history as just a bunch of facts or terms ignores the reality of history's complexity. (When it comes to the Holocaust, though, the evidence and facts do not support a holocaust denier's perspective. I am only talking about historical events where the general events are agreed upon by both sides.) Unfortunately, when it comes to how history is taught in public schools, the idea that there are other perceptions or interpretations of the same facts does not get mentioned. (Again, I notice this with the more recent history.) Historical controversies rarely get mentioned, and I think this is one of the reasons why history is viewed as dry and boring. Most people don't know that there are controversies unless they read about an event on their own. Or take a college history course that goes into depth on a certain era or topic. (The assassination of JFK, of course, is an exception.)

Of course, why should I worry about the bias of a teacher or author of a history book? I worry because at times the bias is taught as fact instead of the facts and people do not always spend the time to make sure that the facts are correct. I'm also worried because I notice many inaccuracies on the internet. I'm afraid that people will read these distortions and accept them as fact. I think there are times when people forget that not everything is true on the internet. ( I include Wikipedia in this category because anyone can post or edit an entry if they do not like what is posted.) When it comes to biases or distortions in history, there are people that want to make everyone feel guilty for what has happened in the past. There events that we should be ashamed of and acknowledge, but I don't believe that we should carry around a baggage of guilt for what has happened. We cannot change what has happened; all we can do is to insure that people are treated fairly and that the same mistakes are not repeated. History is to be studied to ensure that mistakes made in the past are not repeated.

So what do you think? I realize that I've touched upon a controversial topic and that not everyone will agree with me. Again, I apologize for letting my political bias seep into this column. As always, you can leave a comment.


Terry Thornton said...

Jessica, You've written an interesting article which I am sure will get the attention of many. But rather than address the distortions of history by self-serving groups for political advantage, I'd like to bring up another issue that can confuse and distort our take on history --- that of a mentally ill family spokesman.

I have recently dealt with an oral history project. Within one family, the major spokesperson was an elderly lady who, although frail and fragile in physical appearance, was verbally forceful, clear, convincing, and firm in her statements of "facts" regarding her family, her heritage, and her experiences in the hills. I faithfully recorded all she said. The problem, however, is that more than half [and perhaps more than even seventy-five per cent] of her family history were fabrications. I mean she told some whoppers!

I think I'm trying to say that even with the taking of history from a very narrow and limited viewpoint, one has to weigh the evidence. And just became you are talking to someone who was "there" and was an eye witness to the family history does not mean they can give an accurate accounting of those events.

You've made some good points. Thanks.
Terry Thornton
Hill Country of Monroe County, Mississippi

Randy Seaver said...


Good thoughts...I agree with you on all of it.

I don't think any political bias was evident in your post. OTOH, maybe I'm not smart enough to see it [BG]

Cheers -- Randy