Those Who Read the Past Write the Future
Unfortunately most of what we are taught in History survey classes in American schools consists of simplistic formulas. Formulas designed to persuade those forced to attend the government controlled education mills that they should ride the same ideological hobby horses as whoever currently has the power to select textbooks and prescribe curricula. Whether it was the rabidly pro-American imperial History of yesteryear that pushed lines such as, “We never started a war and never lost one,” and “We turned a raw wilderness into a civilized nation.” or, if it is the rabidly anti-American propaganda of today spouting lines such as, “America was founded by deists who used serial genocide and economic fascism to steal a nation, pollute the earth, and poison the sea” neither are correct. Both versions are merely two sides of an extremely myopic view which does not seek to discover nor promote the truth but instead seek to mold the next generation into what they think will be foot soldiers in their own crusade.
History, if it has any value at all is that it fulfills two goals. First, the study of History should provide context. A text without a context is a pretext and we must have context so we can understand how we as a people became who we are, how the world became what it is, and where it might go next. Secondly, the study of History should help us learn from and hopefully avoid the mistakes made by those who have gone before so we can leave a better world to those who come after. However, as stated above, these are rarely the goals of History education. The reason why is summed up in a joke only Historians seem to get.
Most people in the world believe objectivity exists. They act as if the stories presented in survey of history classes are “the facts ma’am and nothing but the facts.” I was once part of this blissful herd. I was a self-taught Historian before I took the plunge and studied to become a card carrying member of the profession. I was captured by the allure of History when I was nine years old. Nothing in the world made any sense. What I was taught and saw at home conflicted 180 degrees from what I was taught at church. What I was taught at church conflicted 180 degrees from what I was taught at school. What I saw on the streets appeared real because it seemed to be the way the world actually worked, but it was out of synch with my home my church and my school. Not knowing myself well enough to know that I am a person who operates best when things make sense and the world appears orderly I was confused and uncomfortable living in a world so out of joint.
Consequently when I learned in the third grade that there were histories of the world available I latched on to them like a drowning man latches on to a life preserver. I began reading History books every day. They became my raft in a swirling sea of confusion creating an orderly world of sequential reality that I used to build my bridge to the first positive value of History, gaining a coherent understanding of how we as a people became who we are, how the world became what it is, and where it might go next. However, I was a rebellious child. A child who never moved to the second value of History. I never learned to profit from the mistakes of those who went before. Following those in my family who went before I walked out of traditional education at age sixteen figuring I knew enough to make my way in the world. Twenty plus years of manual labor later I thought it might be a good idea to finish my education.
When I finished my Bachelor degree in History I realized that a Bachelor degree in History is good for two things, it can help you become the manager of the electronics department at Wal-Mart and it opens the door for a Master Degree in History. Since I was determined to become a History professor, I chose the latter. On my first day of graduate school this budding self-taught Historian had to grit my teeth as a professor told our class, “There are no facts, and History is only what Historians say it is.”
Of course I had to run up after class to argue, “How can you say there are no facts? Look at the Vietnam War. We know it happened. We know when it started and when it ended. Those are facts and we can know them!” After listening calmly to my impassioned tirade the professor quietly said, “Maybe there’s another side to that story.”
This rude awakening sent me on a journey of discovery: searching for the other side of the story. Along the way I contributed my first chapter in a History book. My research helped me realize there is more than one side to every story. There are often conflicting facts, overlapping timelines, and always another way to look at everything. The truth of this is displayed in an endless series of quotes. Napoleon once said, “History is a set of lies agreed upon.” Voltaire said, “History is a pack of lies we play on the dead.” Ambrose Bierce said, “God alone knows the future, but only an historian can alter the past.” And one of my favorite philosophers, Anonymous sagely added, “The certainty of history seems to be in direct inverse ratio to what we know about it.”
What is the purpose of this self-revealing stroll down memory lane? It isn’t for the purpose of either self-actualization or confession. Both of those goals were achieved long ago. It is instead my attempt to lead you my loyal reader (for those will be the only ones left after such a lesson in historiography) to the second value of the study of History. I am encouraged by the multitudes of people who are today engrossed in this study. So many of the recently awakened yearn to know the History of America, they long to know how our Constitution was written by whom and why. I am here to remind everyone we need to look at all sides, consider every angle, and remember everyone has a point of view, even Historians, and objectivity is in reality subjectivity in a grey flannel suit.
Remember that second value of History? It should help us learn from and hopefully avoid the mistakes made by those who have gone before so we can leave a better world to those who come after. If we merely exchange the unabashedly anti-American lenses of the present for the unquestioning pro-American lenses of the past we will be blind to what we really need to see.
The complexity of reality defies the easy interpretations of partisan politics. Has America always been right? No, the jingoistic refrain of “My country right or wrong” will lead those who blindly salute it into supporting what is wrong as easily as what is right. Has America always been wrong? No, the view currently used to indoctrinate the youth in our public schools which sees America as an imperialistic power that used genocide, racism, and naked aggression to build a hegemonic empire forget all the good America has accomplished. This view presents an America bent on maintaining the privileges of the rich over the rights of the poor and leads those who imbibe its venom into ignoring that America was founded as the world’s greatest experiment in personal liberty and economic freedom.
Both views are too simplistic for people who want to break free of the matrix and see the world for what it truly is: a struggle between those who wish to control mankind for their own benefits and those who wish to see man set free so he can become all that he may be.
This is a call for those who have taken the bread and circus blinders off their eyes not to replace them with another set. Today we don’t have to rely on what we have been taught. We can use the Internet as a portal into every perspective imaginable, histories beyond counting, and all the great works of mankind. Read broadly, study extensively and think for yourself. Don’t exchange the purveyors of self-serving pap on the left for the purveyors of self-serving pap on the right. Open both ears, hear both sides, use the mind God gave you, and find the center path.
America has done some things wrong. America has done some things right. When it all is brought to the scales, when enough is seen to grasp the big picture, it is the non-objective view of this Historian that America has provided more freedom for more people than any other country that has ever existed. It is also my opinion that powers of anti-freedom have sought to regain control since the Revolution, and if those who have been too busy working and raising families don’t spend enough time to learn what History teaches we will soon earn the reward for the failure to hold on to the past. We will lose the future.
Dr. Owens teaches History, Political Science, and Religion for Southside Virginia Community College. He is the author of the History of the Future @ http://drrobertowens.com © 2011 Robert R. Owens firstname.lastname@example.org Follow Dr. Robert Owens on Facebook or Twitter @ Drrobertowens