History: More Than Just Cramming for a Test

History is a required subject in schools throughout the United States, but is history simply a subject to be covered, crammed, tested, and forgotten? How much do we really know and understood about our own history? Historian Tony Williams asked, “do we really understand the difference between Jamestown and Plymouth? Or between the Declaration of Rights and the Declaration of Independence?”[1] Do we remember more about our elementary Thanksgiving pageants than we do about the actual people and events that shaped our nation and the world in which we live?

Recently, I saw a meme popup on the internet that counseled the readers to not believe revisionist historians, and inferred that they lie in order to strip away the moral fiber of the nation. Clearly, the intent of the statement was to cause distrust in accounts of history that challenge particular points of view, and to breed distrust of academic sources of history as opposed to sensationalized, patriotic versions of history that tend to leave out the controversial bits. Sadly, too many people avoid academic histories because they distrust the historian’s motivation or because they think scholarly history is boring. Contrary to what many believe, scholarly history is not monolithic in nature, and most historians are not set on convincing the public that the celebrated historical characters are all villainous. Rather, academic historians work hard to replace fiction with fact, and separate myth from history. Historian Carol Berkin wrote, “They write about what interests them… [and] firmly reject collective agendas no matter what group suggests them and no matter what pressing problems those agendas might promise to resolve.”[2] The result is that rather than only providing a timeline of the events and peoples of the past, historians have provided greater access to and understanding of the real people and of their lives beyond the grand events of their day. Instead of data to be memorized the night before a test and then quickly forgotten, scholarly history provides a journey back in time, introducing the reader to a diverse world that is much more fascinating than might have ever been discovered in the days when cramming for the test was all that seemed to matter.

 

Endnotes

[1] Tony Williams, America’s Beginnings: The Dramatic Events That Shaped a Nation’s Character (Lanham, MD; Williamsburg, VA: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2010), ix.

[2] Carol Berkin, First Generations: Women in Colonial America (New York: Hill and Wang, 1997), viii.

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