On De-Mythologizing History

My Twitter buddy and fellow historian Andrew Joseph Pegoda writes a thoughtful essay outlining his conception of historical inquiry and the history of the historical profession itself. I left a comment on the essay, but would like to expand upon those thoughts here.

Andrew posits that there are two different definitions of history. History (with a big H) consists of the study of the past using evidence, resources, and historical methods to construct narratives and interpretations about what happened. history (little h), according to Andrew, is “everything that has ever happened, didn’t happen, everything that has been thought, etc., from less than a millisecond ago.” In sum, little h history largely consists of historical facts. Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. Ulysses S. Grant was born on April 27, 1822. The United States was originally composed of 13 states. And so on.

Andrew continues by lamenting the state of historical literacy in the United States, suggesting that many students today are resistant to seriously analyzing their own myths about the past. He argues that public schools, politicians, and history museums have manipulated little h history to suit their own political agendas to create a mythic past that glorifies America’s alleged exceptionalism while downplaying its own complicated and sometimes dark history of slavery, segregation, nativism, and violence against indigenous populations. In this regard, Andrew’s arguments resemble those of Indiana University professor John Bodnar, who suggests that political and cultural leaders create “official memories” of past events through monuments, memorials, and other symbols as a way of establishing a consensus view of history within society. This consensus history aims to unify a society’s historical understanding of the past–sometimes through myth–as a way of maintaining the political, cultural, and social status quo.

There are many reasons for explaining why people conflate the myths they acquire growing up for big H history that relies on evidence and interpretation for understanding. One reason for this confusion, I would argue, is that the study of history itself has established its own myths over time, myths that historians have helped to perpetuate in their own commentaries about historical methods, the nature of truth, and what exactly constitutes “history” from a content perspective. Indeed, there remains a popular perception of historians working individually in an archive, writing a book, or teaching a class, using evidence obtained from research to objectively report on “how things were” all through the process. Even though public history and the digital humanities have recently emerged as serious and important additions to the field, many outside the walls of academia would be surprised to encounter historians working collaboratively in a digital humanities and/or book project, creating education programs in a public history setting, or working to address contemporary problems and enliven neighborhoods through historic preservation. Historians are often viewed as solitary reactionaries, struggling to pick up the broken pieces of the past while political and cultural elites create their own history in the present. They have struggled to convey the relevance of their field of study to public audiences because those audiences’ very conception of the historian’s craft is often rooted in a mythic understanding of history as it was practiced in the nineteenth century.

As Martha Howell and Walter Prevenier point out, the field of history became professionalized in the nineteenth century, especially towards the end of the century. Academic universities in Europe and later the United States began to include history as a curricular requirement and a field for research and publication. This professionalization led to what Howell and Prevenier describe as the “golden age of text editing and source publication” (41). Many of these scholars strove to make history a more scientific field of inquiry and sought to remove any rendering of the past that suggested a personal bias, a subjective interpretation, or a mythic understanding of the past. The German historian Leopold Von Ranke, for example, argued that historians should strictly limit their studies to provable facts and empirically testable material. This “positivist” view of historical methodology conceived history as “a rendering of the past strictly on its own terms, without grand theory about social systems, causality, or purpose” (88).

The rise of professionalized history can also be tied to the rise of nineteenth century nationalism. For all of their talk about objective truth, many historians during this period contradicted themselves by participating in national projects that aimed to record and celebrate the history of their nation’s past. Howell and Prevenier point to many European projects such as the Monumenta Germaniae Historica in Germany (1819) and The Recueil des Historiens de la France (1899) as scholarly endeavors aimed at romanticizing the past in order to foster social cohesion and national identity in the present. These projects, of course, were hardly objective or strictly limited to historical “facts.”

In the same way that myths provide comfort and understanding about historical events, the mythic nineteenth century view of the discipline of history puts the past in a neat box. Here in the United States, the contradiction of nineteenth century positivist history still seems to have a hold on society’s understanding of historical facts. In my public history work I’ve had countless conversations with people who tell me they just want “the facts” of history without the interpretation. At the same time, however, they express discomfort over any analysis of United States history that might disrupt their own nationalist sentiments and subjective concept of American identity. History, in this view, falls outside the issues of today, allowing for the past to become a source of comfort (which it can and should be, within reason) rather than a source for questions about today. This nineteenth century view also privileges certain types of history (political, military, economics) over others (race, gender, class, material culture), which might explain why books about war, politics, and economics dominate the bookshelves of Barnes & Noble. It might also explain why the field of history continues to have a strong gender and racial imbalance that leans towards white males.

Leopold Von Ranke’s conception of history posits that the study of history has an “endpoint” defined by the discovery and confirmation of factual evidence to explain the past in a single narrative. I view history as a field of inquiry with no “endpoint,” instead representing a lifelong journey of questioning, revision, and interpreting of historical sources that often yield a number of competing perspectives about what actually happened. When we get too comfortable with our understanding of the past, it’s time to start asking more questions of our sources. Convincing young students and the rest of society of the power of history requires us to move our historical methods and thinking beyond the nineteenth century.


4 thoughts on “On De-Mythologizing History

  1. Lots of really great thoughts, Nick! Thanks so much for sharing some of my ideas and expanding on them. 🙂 It’s past my bed time, so I’ll reply with informed comments tomorrow. More soon.

    1. Thanks, Andrew! I actually started running low on energy towards the end, so hopefully my thoughts make sense. I look forward to reading your expanded comments.

  2. Hi Nick!
    I think you’re suggesting that the conception of big H–both in terms of being “objective” and in terms of being the guardian/gate keeper–has contributed to the gap between big H and little h? So for example, big H and little h aren’t that different except they are practiced by different group. Little h has the same “censored” view of the past (via film, school, church, government, etc) as does big H (via image of field, historiography, choice of topics, methods/theories used, etc.) Is this part of what you’re articulating? So I guess in some ways there is no big H except when big H stands-in as authority to say little h is “wrong”?

    1. I think that’s close to what I’m thinking. Ultimately I’m trying to distinguish between the methods and content of history. Using that big H-little H framework I’d say that big H history is concerned with the methods of history: the sources we use, how we use them, and the stories we tell from them. Little h history is the content itself that we work with: facts about what we don’t and don’t know about the past. I think what I’m suggesting is that it’s easy to use the content of history and manipulate it to tell any story you want without really thinking about the methods behind historical interpretation or how sources present themselves with multiple meanings. We know, for example, that the killing of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was a catalyst for the start of World War I. That’s a fact that cannot be refuted. But using that source to explain how the war came about requires both evidence and interpretation about the context in which the event took place. You cannot derive meaning simply from the facts because we ourselves put meaning into the facts we use as evidence.

      Hope that makes sense.

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