New History

(Editor’s Note: This is a slightly updated version of something posted as a Facebook note several years ago. Also, I got the house!)

Many of you know that I am buying a house. Last Tuesday, I paid a home inspector to check out my (hopefully) future abode. After he looked it over, he asked me what I did for a living. I told him I was a history teacher. Without missing a beat, he asked, “You’re not teaching that ‘new history,’ are you?” I charmingly told him that I teach the truth and nothing but the truth. I didn’t think about it again until today.

I really don’t know what “New History” is. To me, history is history. You go out, find as much information on a topic as possible, pull in some primary documents, read up on the analyses of trusted historians, piece together the new information with what you already know, and if anything conflicts, figure out what really happened to the best of your ability. That’s history.

No doubt he was talking about revisionist history, a historical perspective that is basically the opposite of “traditional history,” which lauded American actions over the last century while glossing over the brutality and inequality of our past. Of course, by failing to acknowledge the good, much of historical revisionism falls into the same oversimplification that plague the Ooh-Rah, America version of history. The best historians, a category I am no where near, research every perspective and pull the needle of truth from the haystack of thousands of biased perspectives.

So, do I teach “New History?” I don’t know. I try to help my students see that history is complex. That everything has at least two sides, often more. That actions are taken and decisions are made for multiple reasons. That ideas like “good” and “evil” are hopelessly antiquated. That the truth is found in the grey areas between the black and the white. That jingoism and blind devotion are the very antitheses of patriotism. That the United States has screwed up royally in the last hundred years, but has also done a lot of good.

Is this “New History?” I don’t know. But I do know that any serious perspective of history, supported by evidence, needs to be examined and taken seriously. To casually dismiss an entire historiographical perspective because it’s not what one wants to hear is intellectual blindness bordering on criminal.

History is devastatingly important. Our actions are guided by our experiences. If one does not understand the past, one cannot hope to make sensible decisions in the present. The wisest man I know has a saying: “Stupidity is funny. Ignorance is not.” It’s one thing to not know what’s going on, but it’s another to be willfully ignorant – to ignore evidence or a perspective because it conflicts with your own. Denial and intellectual laziness are powerful forces and fatal ones for a democratic nation if entrenched in the hearts and minds of its people.

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