Monday, January 12, 2009

The Meaning of History

It is often said that history is written by the victors. This certainly makes sense, if only because the “losers” throughout history were often wiped out in the process. Any story, in fact, is told from the point of view of the person telling it and thus will always carry a varying amount of prejudice. Perhaps even more interesting is that early history was written by those who could afford to learn to read and write or to employ a scribe – typically the upper class. In fact, socioeconomic factors play heavily on recorded history, perhaps even up into the last century.

With these factors in mind it would seem that recorded history has been left up to a very small portion of the population. Yet to some history is not so much a search for truth as a delicious glimpse into the lives of people who live far and away from today’s world. History is an attempt to figure out how we arrived where we are today and what factors played a part in that. It’s the story of people and how they shaped the world around them, either alone or as a civilization or society. Yet knowing that a story is often only as good as the telling of it, perhaps some of history’s greats simply lucked into having a great storyteller to write about them.

It would seem that our understanding of history derives in no small part from our own history. If I were black, the stories of the Civil Rights Movement would likely inspire me. Had I been born in Scotland, I might feel a personal fury about the Battle of Culloden. Were I born into wealth or poverty, I’d likely have strong opinions about things like Welfare and private schools. Just as how and where we were raised effects how we view the world today, it is arguable that it would affect how we view history.

Also, as with the telling of any story, no two recitations are exactly the same. A prime example would be the telling of the story of the American Revolution. In grade school we were all regaled with inspiring stories of our Forefathers and their battle against the English to take the United States of America as their own. “Give me Liberty, or give me death,” cried Patrick Henry in 1775. However, think for a moment about the version English history books might tell. It’s rather doubtful that the Americans are portrayed as heroes, visionaries and great leaders. I couldn’t tell you, actually, because I was never introduced to their side of the story. In retrospect that seems very one-sided, doesn’t it?

Today, with the popularity and relative ease of access to information, the recordation of history may be changing. Instead of relying on the oral or written narratives of bystanders, we are now able to view video clips, documents, witness statements and a whole host of other information regarding most incidents of historical merit. There has even been some effort towards public collaboration of knowledge, most famously at The concept is fascinating; touting itself as “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit”. However, and perhaps sadly, Wikipedia is not considered an acceptable resource for information because of its claim to fame. Anyone can edit it, which means that anyone can change the “facts”. It’s a shame, really, that the recordation of history has come so far to have gone past the point of being trustworthy. This would differ from a time when history was considered to be absolute fact, perhaps even as recently as a few decades ago, when no one thought to question history books or facts as presented.

In conclusion, history is the telling of a story from one point of view. It is impossible to believe anyone can know every factor that has lead up any one event during the course of history. To do so you would need to understand every person involved, their motivations, what influences drove them, along with a host of huge and seemingly inconsequential factors that brought all involved (including the historian) to the exact moment that the event occurred. The only true “facts” of history would be those directed by Nature, such as earthquakes and volcano eruptions, and even then tales of their impact would be told by people. Perhaps the best conclusion on what history means is that it’s “his story,” fascinating as it may be.

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