Thursday, May 31, 2007

History is a Weapon

I stumbled across an online site today titled: History is a Weapon. The introduction to the site makes a statement with which most historians would agree.

It claims: History isn't what happened, but a story of what happened. And there are always different versions, different stories, about the same events. One version might revolve mainly around a specific set of facts while another version might minimize them or not include them at all.

Things get a little bit more uncomfortable for those of us who teach history a couple of paragraphs later, when the site's editors maintain: The very selection of which histories to teach in a society shapes our view of how what is came to be and, in turn, what we understand as possible. This choice of which history to teach can never be "neutral" or "objective." Those who choose, either following a set agenda or guided by hidden prejudices, serve their interests. Their interests could be to continue this world as it now stands or to make a new world.

Okay, yes what someone decides to lecture about and how they present that material is a bit subjective and it can benefit or hinder certain ideologies. But at the same time history that is published by university presses and taught on college campuses around the nation is not essentially an ideological basketball that gets passed back and forth between two teams. There is a little something called the historical paradigm, which does limit or constrain the dialogue that historians can engage. For example, you are not going to get taken seriously by colleagues, get a book deal with a university press, or even get hired in the first place if you are a holocaust denier.

If the historical paradigm isn't enough to ensure that history is more than just a 'story', there is a community of scholars in the discipline, who try to keep each other honest. Should one's interpretation not line up with the historical evidence this community, in book reviews, blogs, and at conferences, does not hesitate to challenge others' presentations.

While History is a Weapon is correct about history being a story and I even agree with them that people should examine the past for themselves by reading primary sources and seeing what opinions or stories might have been left out of their historical educations, at the same time, history is more than just a story and more than just twisted or ideologically driven interpretation. In fact, I would argue that history is a weapon because of its very real relationship to what actually occurred in the past. Something that literature or philosophy or fine arts can't claim.


History Is A Weapon said...

I wanted to respond briefly to your comments about our opening statement. Of course, History isn't an ideological ball to be tossed around, but the historical paradigm promoted by institutions tend to support a certain status quo. The gift of hindsight is that we can judge sciences like phrenology as quackery, but an examination of the historical paradigms of the day can be just as illuminating about the role the institutions (i.e., universities, the press, etc) play in defining our world: when professors were all white men, their histories explained an unjust world of slavery, civic death for women, and genocidal campaigns against the indigigenous people as natural, and good, progressions.
Why was it so important to speak of Africa as a savage darkness?
It is similar to promoting checks and balances as the natural protector of democracy when so many couldn't vote and those in power were often of the slave master class.
This isn't simply an issue of hindsight: when today's lessons turn to issues such as U.S. foreign policy (or those same older issues), the America community of scholars largely pushes a particular narrative of American exceptionalism, carefully worded defenses of the complex nuances of the cold war, and the like. You are right that the power of history is more than just the story itself, but because the power of our history is enough to shape our view of the political possibilities, it is incumbent upon us to carefully interrogate the agendas of the dominant institutions and their servants.

p.s. thanks for the thoughtful comment, but I was taken aback by your dismissal of philosophy, fine art, and literature.

Tim Lacy said...

Dr. History,

Thanks for the head's up. When you explore the site a bit, espcially this page, it's clear that it's Left-leaning. That at least explains the heavy emphasis on subjectivity as a counter to hegemony.

Despite the slant, like you I'm impressed (best word?) with it's provocativity.

- TL

drhistory said...

Actually, I thought some of the primary sources could be useful for students. Although, I would probably pair them with things written from the perspective, as well.