As we are about to enter still another era in U.S. and world
history, it seems appropriate to ask again the simple
question with the always seemingly confounding lack of a
simple answer, that is: What is history?
When we’re young, and in school, history appears to be the
story of the past, moreover the true story of the past. As we
get older, we discover that not only does each place or nation
tell its own story of the past, but that these stories can be, and
often are, in conflict. As we get even older, we often learn that
different generations from the same place or nation can see
history quite differently. Particularly in our own time, it is
reported to us that, in the quest to be politically correct, history
can be described by anyone to suit their predetermined
With the technological advance of photography, films, radio,
television and newer devices, there are now certain limits to
how to tell the stories which are history. (Earlier history is alas
less subject to visual and aural “proof.”)
In totalitarian societies, only one story of history is allowed,
and inevitably it is an untrue story. In a free society such as
ours, various stories are allowed, which is a vital element of
our freedom, but paradoxically does have the lack of certainty.
Even history most of us have lived through together, and in the
same place, is subject to the telling of a different story about
what happened. Events can be very complex matters.
Examine the whole catalogue of books of history, and you will
observe so many different and often conflicting stories. How
then is history able to be useful to us, and to those who follow
I think one of the realizations of contemporary life at the
beginning of the 21st century is that for history to be useful to
us, we need each to be more our own historians than we ever
needed to be in the past. Instead of turning away from the news
of the world around us, or depending on a few others for that
news, we have to learn how to use wisely the devices and
forms of communication which bring us news.
The past did happen. There are “facts” of history. History
might not repeat itself, yet it can instruct us. But today, as not
ever before, we are flooded with more data, statistics,
contentions and whole news stories that are conveyed with
points of view which are intended to make us believe that they
are objectively true. Some of them are. Some of them are not.
Each of us needs to develop the skills to discern how useful and
accurate any bit of information, and any story which purports to
be history, truly is.
This might seem to be an insurmountable task, especially with
amount of information and news now reaching us increasing
exponentially. But there is a new tool we can demand in the
reporting and storytelling of history. That is the transparency
or the provenance of what we are told. By that I mean, knowing
more about from where and whom the information comes.
Demanding new and greater transparency in what is taking place
around us will enable to assess history better, including and
particularly the most important history of all, the history we are
now living through every day of our lives.
Copyright (c) 2017 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.