Since my column on history elicited some stimulating debate, it would be helpful to examine the evolutionary nature of historical documentation.
We begin with two titans of history, Herodotus and Thucydides, who have both been lauded as the ‘father of history.’ Herodotus wrote a vast work titled ”The Histories,” that vividly chronicled his extensive travels, which have been celebrated as highly instructive and criticized for melding opinion with historical observations. Over the centuries, research has led to a more informed view, which is an ongoing theme — the inevitable self-correcting nature of historical investigations.
The challenge becomes one of discernment as you study multiple analyses of cataclysmic events such as wars. That takes us to Thucydides, whose “History of the Peloponnesian War,” was remarkable in that he was a firsthand witness as a general. That is, until he lost a key battle and was disgraced, which, ironically strengthened his narrative since he was less biased as an outside observer.
So, how do we overcome the inherent biases that humans bring to nearly all enterprises? The optimal approach is to study several accounts from historians with different perspectives and from different times. What emerges, for instance with respect to the causes of World War I, is a consensus concerning the pre-war geopolitical landscape in Europe. To wit, that Kaiser William II, whose masterful mishandling of the ingenious geopolitical architecture devised by Bismarck, abetted Germany’s hegemonic designs, known as “Weltpolitik.”
The evolution of historical understanding is perfectly illustrated in Edward Gibbon’s 1776, six-volume work, “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” Originally lionized as one of the greatest works in historical exegesis, its critical standing has been meaningfully revised by subsequent historians.
For instance, although Gibbon cited many complex causes for the Empire’s fall, his focus on Christianity led contemporary historian S.P. Foster to write that he “heaped scorn and abuse on the church and sneered at the entirety of monasticism as a dreary, superstition-ridden enterprise.” These corrections are an important acknowledgment that each age has cultural influences that unavoidably seep into historical works.
We know the historical record is subject to abuse. As George Orwell wrote in “1984,” “He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future.”
Ironically, it was the liberal historian Arthur Schlesinger in his 1991 book, “The Disuniting of America,” who argued that he who controls the curriculum controls history. He warned that the push for multiculturalism over national identity leads to a kind of “therapeutic” use of history, when the proper use should be, “the recognition of complexity and the search for knowledge.”
With respect to our public education system, U.S. history is clearly endangered. A 2014 report by the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed that an abysmal 18% of American high school students were proficient in U.S. history.
A 2012 article in Perspectives on History magazine by University of North Carolina professor Bruce VanSledright found that 88% of elementary school teachers considered teaching history a low priority.
When Americans no longer understand our nation’s history, how our forebears sacrificed everything for our independence, confronted the scourge of slavery, prevailed against fascism in two world wars, and hastened the demise of the Soviet Union, they are more likely to accept the distorted versions of history that are currently fashionable.
Obfuscating our history blurs the vision of our Founding Fathers’ call for restrained self-governance, questions whether our rights are God-given, and encourages the acceptance of expansive government at the cost of liberty. That will herald the degradation of our exceptional nation, something we must categorically reject.
During my campaign for Teller County Commissioner, my column will be suspended. However, I look forward to resuming it after the November 2020 election. Until then, I bid you farewell.