Historical truth is hard to handle
There are reasons history is rewritten: Today’s concerns and controversies shine light on things that were papered over
The pages of history textbooks that describe low points in our nation’s history – the Civil War, Jim Crow, Vietnam – might as well be written in pencil. Often, they are revised to reconcile inconsistencies, insert glaring omissions and update conclusions, usually sparking controversy.
Why didn’t they get at the truth the first time around?
Todd Laugen, Ph.D., history professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver, says defining historical “truth” can be a tricky business.
“History is an interpretive project that never really rests,” he says. “So much depends on carefully assessing facts and following the evidence to uncover missing stories. And sometimes present-day controversies and concerns start driving new questions, which results in historians revising our history to address painful experiences in the past. So it’s always evolving.”
The key, as Laugen tells his MSU Denver students, is to always think critically – and in particular, keep searching for multiple perspectives on the past.
“Our national identity should not rest just on the past experience of dead white males,” he says. “It must acknowledge the experiences of all Americans, including women of all races, enslaved African Americans, displaced Native Peoples and a steady stream of immigrants.”
“History teachers, especially at elementary level, often focus on trying to establish a collective national identity based on inherited traditions and admirable heroes,” Laugen says. “But inevitably, studying texts filled only with celebratory accounts of America’s past results in neglected perspectives and ignored facts.”
That means students often leave school with an incomplete understanding of our national story – even those hoping to pursue a career as history teachers. Elizabeth Hinde, Ph.D., dean of the School of Education, formerly led a history teaching class – and remembers how her students reacted when the history they learned in school was revised.
“Many of them would be almost angry that they hadn’t learned this stuff before at school,” she recalls. But this helped them “realize they would need a deeper understanding of past events and people to fully engage their own future K-12 classes.”
Given that we now live in an era when basic facts seem increasingly difficult to pin down, it’s worth asking: Could there be a link between our persistent blurring of uncomfortable historic events and the current trend for creating one’s own truth?
In a word: probably. Laugen points to the recent Confederate-statue debate as a cogent example: “Does the Memphis memorial to Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest remind us of his noble service during the Civil War or validate him as a Ku Klux Klan founder? People could – and do – argue both sides.”
He adds: “There are numerous examples down the years of people parsing historical evidence to advance their own agenda. And in our current divisive political climate, history has once again become a tool and target in public debates.”
Ironically, given its subject matter, there’s a perception that history as a school topic has not aged well. It is unpopular with students and too often depends on rote learning. So what can be done?
“The biggest challenge history teachers face is finding time to teach their subject with depth and meaning, rather than just plowing through historical events,” Hinde says. “They are pressured to cover content a mile wide and an inch deep, instead of encouraging students to develop their critical and investigative skills. That needs to change.”
But there are reasons for optimism. Hinde explains: “Increasingly, many great teachers – especially in high schools – don’t actually use textbooks that often.
“They invest time in finding other resources and learning new historical perspectives so they can continue to grow and better educate their students.”