Growing up, I was taught in my history classes about the great men (sometimes great women) and great leaders of history. Central to this focus, at least when it came to American History, was understanding my place in American society and, ostensibly, making me a better citizen.
One way teachers bring clarity to this focus is by emphasizing the role of history as it pertains to the state level. We learn a lot about “official” acts and events in history: The French Revolution, The Congress of Vienna, Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, Woodrow Wilson and the League of Nations… you get the point. There is nothing necessarily wrong with this approach and studying such events could be justified as allowing us the chance to keep past leaders and institutions accountable for their actions. Yet many students–myself included–end up having a very narrow definition of what constitutes “history,” which in turn creates a bridge between the past and the present that many people don’t understand how to cross. History is understood as something that almost always occurs on the state level, whether that be the actions of Abraham Lincoln as President or MLK’s efforts to enact governmental action to right a wrong. I have read in several articles where people visited museums or studied an online history project and were shocked at the level of interactivity such sites now provide for their visitors. For example, in response to sites like “City of Memory,” which allows average people to share their stories, experiences, and perspectives about living in New York City, visitors have responded with comments like “this isn’t real history” or “I didn’t know this was considered history.” The idea of someone having the power to create history, even if it is in the present, is foreign to them, as it was to me for a very long time.
Howell and Prevenier remind us on the very first paragraph of the first page of their book that history is created, not necessarily discovered:
All cultures, all peoples, tell stories about themselves, and it is these stories that help provide the meanings that make a culture. In its most basic sense, this is what history is: the stories we tell about our prior selves or that other tell about us. In writing these stories, however, historians do no discover a past so much as they create it; they choose the events and people that they think constitute the past, and they decide what about them is important to know. Sometimes historians think they need to know about an event because it seems to have had a direct role in making the present; sometimes historians choose their object of study simply because it seems central to a past that is important today. But historians always create a past by writing it. History is not just there, awaiting the research’s discovery. Unlike a forgotten poem, the ruins of a cathedral, or a lost law code that might be uncovered, history has no existence before it is written.
Wow. That’s beautifully powerful. If you made it through that paragraph, read it again.
History is the stories we tell about our prior selves or that others tell about us.
Historians do no discover a past as much as they create it.
Historians create a past by writing it.
History has no existence before it is written.
There are no self-evident facts in history. Everything is the way it is for a reason (religious questions aside, that’s a whole other topic not germane to this particular discussion). Why do Americans drive on the right side of the road and why do the British drive on the left, and how did this difference come about? How did Air Jordans help define the type of shoe style basketball players used in the 1990s? How did the French Horn change the sound of classical music, and in what ways is it being learned and played today? How did the Grand Army of the Republic in Indiana help create a collective memory of the Civil War in that state? Just about any question you can think of has the possibility of being a topic of historical inquiry to enhance our stories of the past. Yes, “that’s history.” It’s just waiting to be created.
Until next time.