Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Fallacy of "More Accurate" History

In some work he has done for The Modern Scholar series, James W. Loewen tackles one of his favorite subjects: what the standard history narrative gets wrong. What Loewen offers is a cursory but accurate critique of the way history is perceived by the general public. History is not, as it is often presented, the simple and objective recording of what really happened. It is the ordering of what happened through the lens of the historian. As Loewen describes it, history is as much about forgetting as remembering. We forget not only that material which is deemed unimportant (by our fluid and largely arbitrary modern measure) but what is deemed objectionable. History is like building a dresser from IKEA. The builder has a vision of what the finished product should look like and constructs it to the the best of his ability. If there should happen to be some unaccounted for pieces leftover at the end that don't seem to fit anywhere, they can be discarded as unnecessary, extraneous. That is why so much history--like so much build it yourself furniture--doesn't stand up to the test of time.

Like so many thoughtful historians, however, Loewen suffers from short-term memory loss. One of the ways he prefers to evaluate the popular understanding of history is to look at grade school textbooks and state historical markers. He uses both to make his point that history often says more about the time when it was written than about the time it supposedly records. Specifically with historical markers, he suggests that a Gettysburg marker is more likely to reveal something about the 1960s when it was erected than the 1860s it describes. It is then, curiously, that Loewen makes an almost unbelievable suggestion. He states that, in his travels, he finds that the more recently a marker was set up, the more accurate it is.

Without a hint of irony, the professor genuinely seems to argue that modern man has begun to correct the inherent bias in history. It never seems to occur to him that, rather than being more accurate, recent historical markers simply more nearly align themselves to what Loewen himself has termed the prevailing mythology of the time. Loewen, in his quest for more accurate textbooks and markers, seems to have completely forgotten his criticism which cuts to the very heart of how history is done. There is no past apart from the present and the contemporary paradigm through which history is reconstructed. History is not an artifact which is picked up and held, measured and weighed. It is the constellation of supposed facts which makes sense in the present only by passing through the prism of our historiographical biases. In thirty years (or for that matter, at the rate of our current progress, in five) the landscape of how history is done and the theories which govern its writing will be so drastically unrecognizable that Loewen's own meticulously accurate textbooks will be subject to the same kind of criticism he leveled against the textbooks of the 1960s (and, in turn, that they leveled against those of the 1940s, on and on ad nauseum).

Loewen's argument would be better made if he could slip out of the modern fallacy of objective accuracy in subjective pursuits like history and allow instead there to be more constructive measures of the value of historical work. It is more appropriate to say that recent markers and textbooks better reflect contemporary understandings of history or better measure up to current historical standards or even, as would seem to be Loewen's main concern, more closely align the popular reconstruction of history with the high academic reconstruction of history. Ultimately, it all boils down to whether or not the history currently being propagated in our schools and our public consciousness is functional and beneficial for our society. As does Loewen, I would contend that it is not. The correct charge to be made to historians is not, however, simply to create more accurate histories--as if such a mythic goal were even possible--but to press for a public history which is both defensible (based on the facts as we understand them through our chosen historiographical lenses) and pragmatic (based on the function of history in constructing, preserving, and benefiting society).

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