Tag Archives: Folklore

History: More than a Story

Broad based or narrow focused, history is not merely a collection of data, rather it is a story. At times, the story may seem dull, at other times captivating. The study of history can introduce us to the challenges and triumphs of the past. It can help us see patterns in the ‘action and reaction’ cycle of human relations.  It can help us learn from the past events which have paved the way for present actions. However, it can only teach us if we are willing to learn. Simply hearing the story is not enough. Regardless of how enthralling, action-packed, or awe-inspiring, history is not simply a story to be heard. It is a story to be understood.

Whether we look at the rise of Hitler, the arms race of the Cold War, or the growth of empire through colonialization, history can teach us about how groups of humans react when they feel threatened by other groups of humans. During the inter-war period in Germany, the people felt sorely abused by the rest of Europe. They sought a change and a savior from the economic oppression they felt was unjust. During the Cold War, citizens on both sides sought powerful military might as a means of protection from a threat often ideological more than physical. They didn’t simply want a powerful government, they wanted an all-powerful government that could protect them from phantoms as well as from armies. In both of these historical stories, if we take the time study them rather than simply hear them, we can learn that people are willing to give up basic human and civil rights in order to feel protected from outside threats. Additionally, if we go beyond the simple narrative often taught in history primers, we can see cases where people were easily persuaded to put aside their moral compass in order to achieve group affiliation and protection. While the story of Hitler and his atrocious reign of power might more easily provide examples of how people can become swayed by nationalism and nativism, the story of the Cold War also provides examples. Foreign relations, the relations between nations rather than individuals, often times reflect the very nature of human relations. Just as human and civil rights were often trampled upon in both the United States and the Soviet Union by their own respective citizenry, national sovereignty and the right to self-determination were often trampled upon by the superpowers as they spread their economic, political, and military influence. The notion that ‘might makes right’ was not constrained.

The notion of ‘might makes right’ is clearly depicted in the colonization period leading up to the twentieth century. Peoples who seemed to be less civilized in comparison to the social and political norms of Europe were to be suppressed and subjugated, or eradicated if they would not accept their place in the more ‘civilized’ society. Moral qualms were assuaged by dehumanizing those who did not fit the norm and who did not hold the power. This was not the first time the process of dehumanizing the ‘other’ for social or political gain occurred in history, but it did normalize it as culturally acceptable. Even as slavery lost support, colonial conquest and rule, including the westward expansion of the United States, reinforced the idea that certain peoples were more valuable than others. The mighty western nations viewed their culture to be better than the rest, and believed that forced assimilation was right and justified.

To the victor goes the spoils and also the chance to write the story, but history is more than just one person or nation’s account. It is a compilation of stories from many different perspectives. Like the heroic sagas of old, history can inspire and teach lessons to the listeners, but the study of history can do more. It can dispel notions that any one group of people is more perfect or more sinful than the others. It highlights the shared humanity of man; a humanity that is full of valor and full of vice.

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.



[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.

Protest Turned into War

On April 19, 1775, armed protest turned into war. After more than a decade of verbally protesting the increased restrictions placed upon what had been traditionally self-rule in the colonies of British North America, the colonists turned to a show of force as a means to convey their protest. By some accounts the militia of Lexington, MA had assembled to “exercise” in a series of military drills. Yet having been warned in advance of the British troops marching in search of a rumored arms cache, the militia clearly had assembled in a show of defiance. Upon being ordered to disperse both by the British and by one of their own, a shot was fired from an unidentified gunman and chaos erupted leaving men wounded and dying. Certainly calmer voices must have cried for peace, but history has recorded the cries for war that quickly rose up in response to the military action that began in Lexington and escalated in Concord. After meeting with greater resistance upon reaching Concord, the British troops were ordered to return to Boston. Their retreat back to Boston became both an opportunity for reprisal, and the basis for propagandists’ portrayals of victory against the hated oppressors. These British soldiers had been amassed in the colonies not with the intent of protecting the colonists from an enemy, but rather to police the colonists and put an end to smuggling, bribing of officials, and mob violence against those who tried to enforce the laws. The colonists had reason to be angry and dissatisfied with the means taken by the King and parliament to enforce laws which had been created in London but enacted an ocean away in the colonies. Yet at the same time, lawlessness, particularly in relation to the importation and exportation of goods, had been on the rise. The British subjects of North America, most who hadn’t sought to break ties with their motherland, at least not prior to that April day when the first shots of war were fired, had been living in a state where lawlessness and rebellion had been on the rise. They desired a peaceful return to the days before anger over taxation dominated the discourse, but they had entered into a spiraling cycle of action and reaction that led only to the path of war.

Myth, Folklore, History, and Nationalistic Pride

Recently the story of “Butch” O’Hare was recounted to a captivated audience.[1] As the tale of bravery came to an end and people reached to wipe their eyes, the thought came to my mind of the important role myth, folklore, and history play in creating nationalistic pride. Two hundred years ago, concerned with the changes technology and urbanization were having on society, two German brothers began to collect folktales. Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, like other romantics, believed that folktales “were essential for reinvigorating national literatures and saving these literatures from sterile intellectualism.”[2]In 1968, during the height of the revisionist movement, historian Thomas Baily wrote that if the pursuit of history were to “shatter all myths, our social structure would suffer a traumatic shock.” He went on to state, “Historical myths and legends are needful in establishing national identity and stimulating patriotic pride.” [3] During times of societal change and strife, the importance of mythology is heightened and people cling to the stories that make them feel good. Historical precision and factualism is of less importance and can be seen as unpatriotic. During the height of the Cold War, the importance of folklore became an issue of national security. In a heated debate over federal money being used to support the study of folklore, one historian wrote that attempts to stifle the study of folklore could “cripple the efforts of the free world to combat the communist states, who [knew] well how to reach the hidden millions with the shrewd manipulation of folklore, legend, and myth.”[4]

Clearly removing folklore and mythology from the study of history is dangerous to the social structure and unity of a nation. However, the reverse could also hold true. Removing ugly historical facts and social realities from the study of history could be just as dangerous. In a world where technology is creating new communities which ignore national borders and bring together people who were once separated by geography, the promotion of national myth rather than national reality can undermine the success of international efforts to tackle world problems. While not all patriotic, historical reminiscing would be detrimental to international cooperation, jingoistic versions of a nation’s history which clearly whitewash a nation’s less than noble past can harm the nation’s credibility and fuel the fires of hatred that seldom cease to exist in the world. Furthermore, the patriotic rhetoric and reminiscence of national grandeur and exceptionalism often “alienates” a nation’s friends.[5] Myth, folklore, and history can engender nationalistic pride, but it can also become the tool used by a nation’s enemies to rally support for terrorism, even homegrown terrorism. People do not like to be lied to and learning that the noble stories of a nation’s past are not always entirely factual leads to disillusionment. Therefore, a balance must be found wherein the myths, folklore, and history of a nation are all embraced and nationalistic pride is derived from that balance.


[1] Scott Simon, “He Gave His Life For The Nation And His Name To An Airport,” NPR.org, (May 24, 2014),  http://www.npr.org/2014/05/24/315259241/butch-ohare-the-heroic-namesake-of-chicagos-airport.

[2] Elliott Oring, Folk Groups and Folklore Genres: An Introduction (Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 1986), 5.

[3] Thomas A. Bailey, “The Mythmakers of American History,” The Journal of American History 55, no. 1 (1968): 5, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1894248.

[4] Richard M. Dorson, “Folklore and the National Defense Education Act,” The Journal of American Folklore 75, no. 296 (April 1962): 164, (accessed July 24, 2013), http://www.jstor.org/stable/538177.

[5] Joseph S. Nye, The Paradox of American Power: Why the World’s Only Superpower Can’t Go It Alone (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), xiv.