history as story
History's importance pales compared to, say, helping needy children or saving the environment. It seems to have very few real-life applications and is constantly under attack as a discipline from school administrators and academia. History has the misfortune of seeming outdated and irrelevant due to both its content as well as its presentation to the general public (dry lectures in high school and college classrooms about names and dates, outmoded museums that focus too heavily on content conveyed in declaratory and irrelevant ways, and navel-gazing books written for very specific academic audiences).
History, therefore, needs to be about more than the content and what "actually happened" for it to have relevance in society. I would like to posit that history only has importance when it can change people’s hearts and minds. To do this, it must be emotionally powerful. It must be first of all good stories that make human connections to us.
History MUST become stories to be coherent and useful to people. We cannot ever know everything about a certain moment in the past and we certainly cannot ever recreate exactly what the past was like. It is the past. It is gone forever. That means that we are left with bringing together evidence from the past (artifacts, diary entries, maps, oral history, etc.) to piece together a story about what a certain point in time was like. The more that we are able to tie that story to relatable emotions and events that anyone can imagine themselves going through, the better off our "history" will be.
I'll use a personal example to illustrate my point. As a boy, I enjoyed listening to Fisher Price story tapes. The tapes had stories about the American Revolution, Ben Franklin, Daniel Boone and George Washington. I identify listening to these as the beginning of my infatuation with history. I liked these tapes because they had great stories told in engaging ways. The American Revolution tape began in Henry Knox's bookstore with a clock ticking in the background. A young man, Sam Maverick, enters the bookstore and talks to Knox about wanting to go throw snowballs at the "lobster-backs". I doubt that Maverick ever actually existed, and even if he did, it is doubtful that he spoke to Henry Knox...but it made a great story. Maverick goes to the square in Boston to see what is going on, and while he is there, gets caught in the angry mob of citizens and is shot by the troops in what became known as the Boston Massacre. The next part of the tape (after a stirring transition of heart-rending music) focuses on one of the soldiers who fired on the Americans named York Evelyn. He is obviously a composite character. The rest of the tape follows his life (as well as a young farmhand who fought against the British at Concord) through the major events of the war. Through it all, I constantly thought about what I would do in those situations. Would I obey my commanding officer if I were York Evelyn and fire on unarmed citizens? How would I have felt if I had to leave my family to fight the British? I think that subconsciously, I also realized the tragedy of war through this tape...a realization that still colors my feelings about war to this day.
History does have relevance, but we need to change our thinking and language so that we are talking not about details and themes over time, but rather people and universal emotions that can lead to personal and societal betterment.
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David Allison, "history as story." Forward Capture: Imagine the Future of Public History, Item #21 (accessed June 19 2013, 8:52 pm)