Sunday, March 23, 2008

Thoughts on History

This week there were several posts and articles that addressed history and how it is presented, revised and remembered.

The first article is a book review by Niall Ferguson, the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University and William Ziegler Professor at Harvard Business School. He reviews I Wish I'd Been There: Twenty Historians Bring to Life Dramatic Events That Changed America. in an article titled,Time travellers.

He opens with:
Leopold von Ranke’s famous definition of what historians should strive for can be variously translated. “As it actually was” is the most common rendering of “Wie es eigentlich gewesen”; “as it essentially was” is probably more exact. The great Oxford philosopher of history, R. G. Collingwood, , was more precise: “Historical knowledge is the re-enactment of a past thought.”

Ferguson proceeds to find:’s refreshing to encounter the assertion in this entertaining volume, that “putting themselves into the past … is what historians have to do if their work is to be effective.” They must “become so attuned to the way that historical actors thought and behaved that it is almost as if they were there”.

And found that in order to understand history, the historian has to do more.
.....than just imagining “what it felt like to be there”. We need to imagine what would’ve happened if the act in question had not happened.

In the final analysis Ferguson thought the book, although fell short of it's mark to give us history, "as it actually was," found that the best parts were the ones that addressed how it wasn't.

The second post about history requires just a click over to, and a post about the last living American Veteran of World War I The Last Doughboy. Mark writes in part:

WWI had been overshadowed for decades by the sheer enormity of it’s larger and more lethal sequel, the Second World War but historians are coming to see the Great War as a watershed in modern history, the tipping point at which the twentieth century went unpredictably, horribly, wrong.

The words of Lexington Green, of Chicagoboyz, in the comments section is worth the price of admission.

The people who fought and died on the Allied side did not do so "for nothing" and their deaths were not futile. They were on the right side. Their great-great-children will never be taught that, however. The Left has a huge investment in maintaining the very disillusion you mention. All the values that shaped our civilization down to 1914 have been under attack since at least 1918. The lie at the heart of that baseless attack is that World War I was a pointless and callous discarding of millions of lives. It took more than ten years of relentless propaganda after World War I to get that lie accepted as the "master narrative". We have been saddled with it ever since.

Well worth the time to read and remember how fast time passes and the lessons of history if not recorded and reviewed, will be lost to the generations.

The next stop on this trip around the web where history leads the headline, is abu mugqawama's blog where he calls attention to how the media can cook the books when reviewing a book. Nicholson Baker's Scummy Little Book invites Abu to ask:

Abu Muqawama has a question: why have both the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times enlisted two radical leftists -- Mark Kurlansky and Colm Toibin, respectively -- to review novelist Nicholson Baker's new revisionist history of the Second World War (in which Churchill is revealed to be a madman and the Nazis apparently responsive to non-violent negotiations)?

Abu's question is a serious one, for all interested in the truth.

He only wishes for an objective book review editor to:

....hire an actual academic historian......-- preferably one of the Second War War, such as Tom Childers or John Keegan -- to run roughshod over Baker's fantasy history.

And in the end finds one:

Update: FFT (Former Flatmate Theo) points out that William Grimes smacked Nicholson Baker around in the New York Times Arts section a week ago. William W. Grimes.

And finally, I turn back to an article published several weeks ago in USA Today and more recently in The Journal of American History, March 2008, edition.

The article addresses, Who are the most famous in American History? The survey asked 2000 high school students across the nation to list the the most famous Americans, excluding Presidents and their wives. The results were:

Famous Americans Percentage

1. Martin Luther King Jr 67%
2. Rosa Parks 60
3. Harriot Tubman 44
4. Susan B. Anthony 34
5. Benjamin Franklin 29
6. Amelia Earhart 23
7. Oprah Winfrey 22
8. Marilyn Monroe 19
9. Thomas Edison 18
10. Albert Einstein 16

The above list is reflective of the way society currently views history in terms of social value and how the:

"cultural curriculum" that most kids — and by extension, their parents — experience in school increasingly emphasizes the stories of Americans who are not necessarily dead, white or male.

The emphasis on Americans other that white males is past it's time for being recognized. However, the pallet of the American experience needs all the colors present, in order to understand American history. The pendulum must begin to swing back in order to offer balance to this story. Also leaving out Presidents, especially the founding fathers, IE Washington, Madison, Jefferson, leaves students to seek examples from current memory.

This is reinforced by a recent post on this blog. The Changing Image of Women.

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