On History

Having attended seven schools on three continents by the time I got to eighth grade, I missed a lot of the normal history curriculum and then, in high school, every course seemed to start with the Greeks and Romans and the school year ended before we got to the second World War, which was when I was born. Consequently, I had no familiarity with history until a college friend, a history major needed some help with his studies of European history.

Then, as a poli sci major, I decided to consult some documentary evidence, specifically the Constitution of the country of Senegal to consider how their post-colonial government might differ from that of former British colonies. Then, after a short period of employment, I got involved in local government, building codes and zoning laws and the realization that eternal vigilance was required if communities were not to be destroyed by “improvements.” And that’s where historical preservation popped up to throw a wrench into bureaucratic machinations. If a neighborhood in Florida was to be saved from being turned into parking lots, as was the downtown of Ithaca, New York, it had to be proved historically significant. And, in the process of proving that, I learned that the official historical record compiled by historians from the press and family biographies was largely false.

Not only was the history of African Americans largely missing, so was the history of women, if property records, wills and official government reports were to be believed. I guess, to be fair, that it wasn’t so much a matter of error, as a habit of leaving what was not socially significant out.

What I wonder now is whether the producers of historical narratives were not mostly individuals who did not accomplish much themselves. Perhaps hagiography was just a convenient alternative for dandies. If inventors were mostly forgotten, maybe it was just because they were too busy doing things.

So, what is motivating the historians of today? I actually think the saying that ” those who do not learn from history are bound to repeat it” is a crock. Trump’s obvious similarity to the German authoritarians has not prevented educated people from following him. Of course, the culture of obedience that’s been promoted for half a century has gone mostly unnoticed as well. And then there is the legacy of Christianity.