Monday, July 12, 2010

Thinking About History I

Thinking about history has been my major intellectual preoccupation all my life. In a way, it must have started before I started school, because in the course of many years of formal education my interest had to survive some fairly bad history "teachers." I'm sure you know the type: The ones who lived for the one class period a week they could spend on their true love, Driver Education. The coaches who thought class time was a good time to bring the football team (in my high school days the world's losingest) up to speed on their plays. Every teacher who ever majored in "social studies" because it looked like an easy path to a degree.
Later on I had at least one brilliant history teacher. For this I am grateful; but if my historical interest had not somehow been hardwired into me from birth I don't think it would have survived to encounter that brilliant one.
So--what IS history? History is--maybe--a "social study"; but if it is, it is a whole lot more than that. It is the doyenne of social studies.
It is our way of thinking about what goes on in time. But what if time itself is an illusion? (Sometimes that seems both likely and comforting.) In that case, I think, we still have to deal with history, because unless we can think like quantum physicists the historical idea is about as much as we can encompass intellectually.
How can we know if history is "true"? A good question. We can't. As students of history, it is our intellectual and moral obligation to keep the record--and to keep the record straight. Or at least as straight as possible. We will never be able to know that our telling of the story (the word "history" derives from the Greek word for "story", and rightly so) is true in every detail. It seems unlikely that it ever could be.
On the other hand, it is all too possible to distort the available historical record and shape it into a construct of lies. It's been done time and again; the most famous example of "twistory" is that perpetrated by Hitler and his minion Josef Goebbels, but on a lesser scale it goes on all the time.
The inevitable result is some REALLY bad history, immense suffering brought about through evil invention.
The British historian Garrett Mattingly, writing at a time when German bombs were raining down on his country, suggests a much higher use for his intellectual specialty. He was writing about the Spanish Armada, an earlier attempt by another country to destroy Britain; and in his book he praised the human virtues of the Spanish admiral, the Duke of Medina Sidonia. He said he did so because one of the uses of history is to do justice.
And to me that sounds like the very best use of history.

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