History — you know, the subject you loved to hate in school — is often criticized with scorching descriptions like: “History is written by the winners” and “History is not actually written, it’s re-written.” Lot of truth to these accusations. True or not, we can’t help seeing and shaping our memory of past events in ways most comfortable to us. For example, if you’re a Babe Ruth fan you will always remember the historic day at Wrigley Field when he “called the shot” by pointing to the bleachers in which he intended to slam the next pitch.
Almost a century later, this is myth to many, and yet history to the true believers. Examples of this — from the Battle of Troy to the Battle of Britain — persist, and all the history teachers in all the world cannot prevail against it.
As a History teacher once myself, I decided long ago people think with their heart as much as the facts. Sometimes it would be cruel to try changing it. Indeed, the mythologists may often be closer to the truth than the historians.
There is another way to embrace history. All it takes is living long enough to outlive most of the people who were there. For instance, listen to a World War II vet tell you about the Battle of Normandy or Midway. As one of the few survivors, how dare anyone contradict their version? It becomes, by sheer right of survivorship, the authentic truth. You will hear a great deal of this kind of history at school reunions, where everyone else’s favorite memory stands unchallenged just so long as they let you have yours.
So lets be honest about it. History — personal or national — is all too often what you and I believe it or make it. Historiography is not the same as say Chemistry or Geometry. Try as they do, professional historians cannot assure their work is as “scientific” as these others. History will always have — insist upon — the role of the presenter; not the rule of a formula.
When you look at it this way, History becomes the least precise but most precious of all human studies.
Well, at least this is what I tried to tell my students….
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