Wednesday, September 7, 2011
What is or what “defines” history?
In my American History class junior year of high school our teacher asked us this question on the first day of class, and also on the last. She challenged us to ask ourselves why we personally and societally determined certain things, people, events, and information as historical. Is history up to personal and societal interpretation? Is it about strict factual information or is it “his story?” If so, who is he?
I shutter to think that a quote from Adolf Hitler backs up my point, but when I was reading Mein Kampf for my “History of Nazism and Fascism” class I came across a quote stressing the confusion over what history really is.
“Few teachers understand that the aim of studying history can never be to learn historical dates and events by heart and recite them by note; that what matters is not whether the child knows exactly when this or that battle was fought, when a general was born, or even when a monarch (usually a very insignificant one) came into the crown of his forefathers…To ‘learn’ history means to seek and find the forces which are the causes leading to those effects which we subsequently perceive as historical events.”
Hitler’s definition is not a concrete example of what history is, and I don’t think a tyrannical anti-Semite would be the best source for a concrete definition of history. But what is important is that we realize the importance of interpretation and rhetoric in history. The line “which we subsequently perceive as historical events” is extremely powerful because it acknowledges perceptions as a crucial part of history. Factual information, decisive battles, and non-biased facts all attribute to the creation and documentation of history, but I feel the beauty of history is lost in those dates, numbers, details, which we all seem to remember.
We often forget to textually and contextually analyze the events that led to this “history.” It is crucial we understand the perceptions, biases, and opinions of the people in these events and the people who document them. We have to ask who is the “his” in “his story?”
Would the stories of “Jim Crow South” be the same stories if they were told by a person of color viruses a white southerner? Would an impoverished protester and President Mubarack view the current unrest and revolution in Egypt similarly?
It is crucial that we understand the importance of perception, context, and societal interpretation when studying history. Through critical analysis of the people, places, and events in our past we can better understand what we personally and socially define as history, and make efforts to change it in the future.