History is not an exact science – Carmen Hernandez

My field of study is history. I suppose I can blame my father for this life choice. He loved history, or certainly, loved a romanticized version of history that told of gallantry, and courage, and victory. My dad often narrated episodes of history to us that he thought significant. He was interested in military history, for example, and I still remember how he and a close friend of his would “play” out such scenes as Pickett’s charge during the Battle of Gettysburg, analyzing the folly of the order, or the Battle of el Alamein during World War II. I was not drawn in by the military exploits of any army, but by the passion both my dad and his friend displayed as they spoke of such things.

Then when I was twelve years old we moved to Rome, Italy because of my father’s work. Thanks, Dad! Really, honestly, thanks so very much. I loved Rome. I learned Italian. I loved wandering the streets of this historic jewel of a city. I was not drawn to the Imperial sites and ruins which abound to this day, such sites as the Colosseum, or the Baths of Caracala. No, I was in love with Medieval Rome, the Campo dei Fiori paved in 1456 by Pope Calixtus VI and home to an open air market since the early 1800’s, the small streets, or vicoli, of Vecchia Roma as the Romans call it, “Old Rome.” I began to learn the stories of the families who lived in the large palazzi, as many sizable buildings are called,  and I learned to recognize the coats of arms on the medallions displayed at the entrances of the structures.  What really captivated me, though, were the stories of these families, of intrigue, power, love, betrayal, and all the drama that history contains.

What is history? Is it the stories we tell? The walks we take through historic sites, passing monuments? Is it the glorified retelling of either valor or the sad turn of tragedy? Is it grandma’s memories? Is it family lore, or myth, or legend?

When I consulted the website of the American Historical Association I read that renowned historian William McNeill said “Historical knowledge is no more and no less than carefully and critically constructed collective memory. As such it can both make us wiser in our public choices and more richly human in our private lives.” I will return to McNeill’s definition further on. World Historian Peter Stearns said “”History … is essential to individuals and to society, … because it harbors beauty.”

Despite these glowing descriptions history is a messy conglomerate. Put most simply it is the written record of human experience in all its dimensions, the good, the bad, the ugly. History is a discipline, a science. Historians apply methodology to the study of the past that assesses human experience by analyzing cause and effect.  History takes account of biases from the time period under scrutiny, the sources consulted, and the present. History uncovers. History answers questions.

The famous philosopher Santayana said this about history:

 “History is nothing but assisted and recorded memory. It might almost be said to be no science at all, if memory and faith in memory were not what science necessarily rest on. In order to sift evidence we must rely on some witness, and we must trust experience before we proceed to expand it.”  The scientific methodology of the discipline can confirm that events happened by consulting the record, by relying on some witness, as Santayana said. But here I must quote Hamlet when he lamented, ay, there’s the rub! Not everyone likes the answers history provides.

Answers to historical problems may be contradictory or may contradict current beliefs and popular understanding. History is not an exact science. It never was. It most likely never will be. Like any science, history is affected by new discoveries and information. In addition, some seek answers by ignoring evidence or superimposing an interpretation of data that really isn’t there.  This is not a new problem. We needn’t look far to discover problematic historical narratives that either ignored the facts in the record, or twisted the meaning of a record.

Few stories better exemplify a narrative that may have gotten a few things wrong than that of the discovery of the Americas in 1492 by the Italian mariner Christopher Columbus who was in the employ of the Spanish monarchy. Those of us who grew up in the fifties, sixties, and even the seventies, learned of an adventurous explorer, a stalwart navigator who proved that the earth was round and discovered America! This was celebrated especially in New York City where an avenue and a circle with a huge column topped by a bronze statue were named after Columbus. Much about his story was ignored, however, and nowadays Columbus’s brutality against the Native peoples he encountered has been exposed, and it is acknowledged that he died in prison because of his cruelty and greed. Our culture has been challenged to figure out how where the story of Columbus fits and what is the legacy of his actions. Hint: not good!

At the end of Columbus’s first trans-Atlantic voyage, after his return to Spain, Columbus wrote to the Spanish monarchy describing what he had found:

On the thirty-third day after leaving Cadiz I came into the Indian Sea, where I discovered many islands inhabited by numerous people. I took possession of all of them for our most fortunate King by making public proclamation and unfurling his standard, no one making any resistance. … The inhabitants . . . are all, as I said before, unprovided with any sort of iron, and they are destitute of arms, which are entirely unknown to them, and for which they are not adapted; not on account of any bodily deformity, for they are well made, but because they are timid and full of terror. . . . But when they see that they are safe, and all fear is banished, they are very guileless and honest, and very liberal of all they have.

While Columbus had been gone, the forty men he had left on Hispaniola had raped and murdered the natives and pillaged their villages.  The natives struck back, killing ten Spaniards.  Columbus counterattacked with crossbows, guns, and ferocious dogs and loaded five hundred natives on a ship bound for the slave market in Spain. These events set a trend of savage exploitation for the rest of Columbus’s explorations in the Americas.

Though the encounter of Europeans with Americans was momentous the story includes some very dark and disturbing details that were omitted in the retelling when I was a child. Italian immigrants and their descendants lobbied aggressively to honor Columbus who was originally from Genoa.  In a way, the story of Columbus even meshes well with the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, the early 19th century American belief that the United States was ordained – to some divinely ordained – to occupy the North American continent from coast to coast. It was part of a larger plan. Yet, to the peoples brutalized, enslaved, and murdered by contact with Europeans, not much was good in this story.

Among the current challenges facing the teaching and study of history is the concern that to study such episodes as that of Columbus causes discomfort, sometimes extreme discomfort, or distress.  To look at the ugly cruelty of forebears seems to some to be a condemnation of all ancestors. The scientific methodology of the discipline can confirm that the events happened. Examination of the historic records, primary documents, reveals what the actors thought and believed. History  tells us that the reality of the story is indeed difficult to confront. How must a society respond to that difficulty? Is it right to look away? Is it acceptable to rewrite the narrative of the past so that only “feel good” stories are preserved and transmitted?

To answer these questions I want to refer back to McNeill’s definition of history and why we should study it: [History] can both make us wiser in our public choices and more richly human in our private lives. More richly human. More human. Exactly what is more human?

In April, 1945, Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower insisted that residents living in the area surrounding the liberated Ohrdruf concentration camp witness for themselves the atrocities that had taken place there. He enjoined media to document, especially with photographs, the horrors of the camps. Eisenhower believed that only by seeing with their own eyes the unspeakable brutality could the memory of the events be preserved that they might never again be repeated. Never again. Eisenhower sought to reinforce the lessons of history by displaying what was clearly inhuman. Those compelled to walk through the concentration camps witnessed inhuman atrocities that had been perpetrated by humans. How could this be?

Human. What is human? Eisenhower, McNeill, and all who appeal to humanity have a definition of human that honors sets of attributes including kindness, compassion, empathy, honesty, caring. The Yiddish term mensch originates from the German mensch, human being, but it means so much more than that scientific classification. According to a definition I found from the Sydney Jewish Museum “A mensch, in Yiddish, is a person of integrity, morality, dignity, with a sense of what is right and responsible. But mensch is more than just an old Yiddish adage. It is relevant now, across the world, more than ever… “To be a mensch is to be supportive. To be a friend, to be calm in troubled times.”

In the present, here in the United States, there is a raging culture war about history lessons that cause discomfort. History is witness to ugly acts, racism, enslavement, human trafficking, genocide, war, atrocities. Fear that a child, broadly speaking any child in K through 12, should be made to feel uncomfortable by some of the lessons of history has been deemed unacceptable and instruction that may cause such discomfort has been classified as indoctrination. There is concern that a child could be made to feel guilty for past atrocities or historic crimes. Certainly, it is not wise to disclose all details of the atrocities known as the Holocaust to a young child. This can also be said about treatment of Native American in our country. Educators must tread carefully in using lessons that are age appropriate.  Why would a child feel guilty about atrocities committed in the past? What emotion is driving the child’s revulsion and reaction? Children should not have to atone for the sins of their ancestors. The sins of the father…

To me the question is why is it wrong for a student of history, of ugly history, of the history of genocide, or racism, or enslavement, or murder to feel bad or feel guilty? Isn’t that indicative of empathy?  Isn’t that what Eisenhower hoped to impart by forcing people to see and acknowledge an atrocity? Isn’t that a lesson that helps define “human” as McNeill used it? Is it bad to respond to brutality and ugliness with sadness? How can society commit to “Never again” if it hides what once was because it saddens? How can we teach empathy, kindness, concern?  Does knowing ugly history eclipse, eliminate, or erase history that is about good? How does history contribute to the formation of humanity. Many contend that not knowing history at all is dangerous. George Santayana, quoted above wrote “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

 History has to be recorded. Who records history and when they record it, whose memory are they recording, whose are they omitting? An adage reminds us that history is written by the victors, so what becomes history is fundamentally arbitrary. Those who write history shape the narrative. In 1891 Missouri Senator George Graham Vest added that victors recorded history “and framed [it] according to the prejudices and bias existing on their side.”  Human intent can be as important a component of history as human memory. Why did someone record that history, that memory in that way? What is the lesson they want to preserve and transmit?

To balance the lessons of history, historians add a layer of scrutiny to evaluate methodologically and scientifically the validity of what is recorded. Over time, scholars define criteria for what constitutes history and use them to review what is presented as history. Standards are set, and while standards can change, they are the product of consensus. Which brings me back to the current cultural war on history. What stories does our society want to tell of our past but also of our present, and who decides what and how those stories are told? Who are the victors? Who are the vanquished? Studies have shown that in 2022 nearly 50% of Americans could not name all three branches of government, and that 25% could not name any branch of government. Are we educating students when we omit that most of the Founders of our nation were enslavers? (Again, information that can be disclosed in accordance with age appropriateness of the topic).

Last May, the American Historical Society published new guidelines for the definition of history that broaden what now can constitute history by acknowledging that many are engaged with information in new ways. Historians, but also non-historians are engaging in advancing historical knowledge by recording events, assessing their importance, and sharing their thoughts. An op ed might be history, though the caveat is that not every op ed will be. Essays, articles in non-academic periodicals and newspapers may be history. The AHA proposes that peer review may be validly conducted after publication of work, rather than before, a process that can delay release pending the reviewer’s assessment. The AHA trusts that there exists a community that can constructively curate historical knowledge and scholarship.

As to the naysayers, the censors? The AHA may be taking the wind out of their sails by making history (both literally and figuratively) broader and more accessible. And who doesn’t like a good story? The stories tell of the rise and fall of powerful, of the elevation of the humble; stories record tragedies, but also unlikely serendipitous moments and triumphs.

When Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery departed on their mission to learn just what kind of real estate deal Jefferson had concluded by buying the Louisiana Territory, Sacagawea was a member of the group. She had only recently turned sixteen years of age and given birth to a child just before the expedition began. She came along because her husband had been hired as a scout.  Yet, it was Sacagawea’s knowledge of plants, Native American custom and languages, terrain that contributed significantly to the success of the Corp’s expedition. It was she who jumped into the river to catch the canoe that had broken loose, the canoe that held all the journals of the expedition. The Corps of Discovery might not have succeeded in returning. On the brink of starvation and exposure as winter was setting in, the brother of Sacagawea crossed paths with the travelers and guided them to shelter and safety. Sacagawea had guided the party to an area where she hoped to encounter familiar Shoshone like her brother. While meeting her brother was indeed almost miraculous, this young women had driven the party forward increasing the chances of that encounter. They were saved, and we know so much about the Corps of Discovery because of the serendipitous meeting. Truth is stranger than fiction, and but history is no fiction!