Don’t Cheapen History

I occasionally hear the phrase, “Oh, well I’m not a historian, so I don’t care too much about the details and I just want it to be entertaining.”  I do understand this reasoning. You may not be a historian, and technically neither am I (not yet, anyway). None of my credentials are in history, but about 1/3rd of the undergraduate courses I took either directly involved history or were in closely-related social science fields.  Furthermore, I’m a social studies teacher, which is not a historian either, but involves a lot of historical skills and I had to take a number of pedagogy courses on how to teach students to “think historically”.  

So What’s the Problem?

Here’s my two problems with that phrase or similar ones:

  • It’s a devaluation of the field of history in general.

It assumes that history, and to some extent social sciences, are inherently boring, worthless, and a waste of time.  How many times have I heard the ignorant phrase, “History is boring! It’s just a bunch of dates and stuff that happened to some people who’ve been dead for hundreds of years.” Never mind that historians don’t really sit around and endlessly memorize dates or random trivia. We’re not playing Jeopardy!

We could easily devalue any other field. If history is just a bunch of dates and dumb facts, then mathematics is just a bunch of stupid numbers and symbols. Biology is just a bunch of squishy, gooey cells and animal/plant life. Medicine is just a load of Latin words, drugs, and diseases. Art is just paint, brushes, and canvas. Engineering is just buildings, rulers, and steel-reinforced concrete. I could go on.

  • It’s a devaluation of the skills that historians possess.

If history is such a useless field, then I guess the very well-developed research skills historians possess are useless, as well?  There’s this implication that there’s no need to be meticulous in your research. Instead, I suppose historians should just condone a sense of intellectual laziness.  “I don’t care about the details, so therefore I have no reason to check the accuracy or veracity of something. It’s more important that I’m entertained.” Sadly, that’s essentially an endorsement of style over substance. Within this context, my definition of style over substance is that which is solely meant to capture your attention and create an impression without significantly contributing to your understanding. You might as well just pay for fake news and hyperbole (and that crap is usually free).  Yes, research can be hard, but the basics are relatively simple. Surely you can do some basic research; it just requires a bit of practice and patience. 

Analyze This!

It gets worse when those types of people try to provide an analysis or opinion on something.

It’s like watching the news, getting a 90-second snippet on some story and then coming up with a broad opinion on the matter.  My question is: How much can you really conclude from 90 seconds of television broadcasts and mass media?

It’s also like watching a “based on a true story” movie and then have that film influence your perception on the topic.  Since we know Hollywood makes up its own BS version of history, being overly influenced by a piece of Hollywood historical fiction is effectively an endorsement of historical negationism (not revisionism because that implies a critical re-examination of the facts).  

There’s also the potential for the distortion of reality and the perpetuation of myths and misconceptions. Just look up any website that lists off movie inaccuracies and you’ll find ones that people have tried to pass off as facts to you because they didn’t bother to dig any deeper or do any real research for themselves.

My point is: how much do you really know about those topics?  How much have you studied or read up on them? Is your sole perception of those events only from what you saw on the evening news or in a movie?  That’s a joke if I’ve ever heard one! That’s a fast track not only down the path of ignorance, but also to tons of bias. If these kinds of people have the gall to brush off history as useless game show trivia, write off historical research skills as pointless, and then go on acting like experts because of what they saw on the news or in a movie, well I’m sorry, then why should I pay attention to their opinion on anything mildly related to history? 

So you saw it in a movie, played it in a video game, watched the 6pm news, and have no other reputable sources to lend credibility to your opinion…yeah, I’d say you’re opinion is a pointless and boring joke. A waste of my time. If you’re more concerned about being entertained, then go watch the Kardashians run around being shallow, air-headed, attention-seeking twits.

Does History Need to Be Entertaining?

No doubt, some history can be quite boring, but that’s largely a matter of personal taste. What one person finds boring, another person could find fascinating.

There are some students who say that history class needs to be entertaining. Understandably, when dealing with children or teenagers, you can’t expect them to have the research skills of an adult, much less a more mature understanding of the world. Therefore, some degree of simplification is warranted.

However, this raises the question of:

To what extent do we need to simplify history or make it entertaining just so people can digest it?

Hypothetically, let’s say that if we’re going to simplify and make history entertaining (no, I’m not talking about the Youtube Channel “OverSimplified”) then why not just throw historical accuracy to the wind? I mean, who care’s about the facts, right? You’re just here to be entertained.

Hollywood already has a nice selection of historical fiction for your viewing pleasure, but let’s make up some of our own titles and story lines.

  • Southern Freedom – A musical set in the 1800s where all the African-American slaves sing gospel music about how great it is to serve under their benevolent white southern plantation owner who uplifts them from destitution and provides them with work opportunities. They’re so happy that they just decide to work the cotton fields for free! Plus, the slaves that ran away are really just exercising and training for the 100-meter dash!
  • Prisoners of Love – An epic romantic drama set in the 1930s and 40s featuring four characters on opposite sides of the world. In Poland, a dashing Nazi SS officer at a concentration camp meets and falls in love with a Jewish woman. In Nanjing, China, a handsome Imperial Japanese Army soldier falls in love with a Chinese woman. Will the love of both of these couples resist the cataclysmic forces of war? *Oddly enough, a supposed love affair occurred at the Sobibor camp between a Viennese Jewish woman and an SS-Sergeant Paul Groth. The woman was later murdered when fellow SS men discovered the affair (Weale, 2012 ,p. 357).
  • Hijack Hijinks – A slapstick comedy about September 11 where a bunch of bumbling Arab men are mistaken for terrorists and accidentally find themselves in the cockpits of four airliners after the pilots all fall asleep at the controls at the same time. The only way to stop the planes is to physically fly them into something.

“What? You say that these are offensive to the memory of these people? Well, I don’t care if it’s historically accurate, I just wanna be entertained!” DUUUURRRR!

The problem here is that when taken to an extreme and historical accuracy is disregarded for the sole sake of entertainment, then the product risks crossing a line where it becomes offensive to the suffering and memory of others. History effectively becomes a big joke. Thankfully most “based on the true story” films are not this blatantly insensitive, but the point here to is not to suspend all efforts at research for entertainment value.

Effective research (indeed the entire scientific method) is predicated on the power of inquiry. Asking the right question is one of the keys to the effective evaluation of information. This is why many teachers try to build effective inquiry directly into the lessons they teach. Simply put, if the teacher is doing most of the work, then the students are not doing much of the learning.  So I’m not going to sit around and spoon-feed my history lesson to you in the form of tweets, text messages, and explosion-filled, 90-second video edits solely for the sake of keeping your attention…however short it may be.  I should not have to dumb down history just to accommodate your need for constant stimulation. Rather, it’s important that I teach young people how to come up with effective questions and conduct the actual research themselves. Through that process, they will learn and retain the information better.

So Why Is History Valuable?

History is a narrative and it literally has the word “story” in it. More importantly, history is a story that is built upon verifiable facts.  It goes back to my previous post on Digital Journalism and why citing sources is important.  A well-cited piece of writing is more credible than one with no (or poor) sources. Whenever I pick up a new history book, I immediately look at the bibliography and any end notes or footnotes the author used.  Those things tell me a lot about how the author did their research.

The idea that history is irrelevant to the modern times is shallow and dismissive. As I noted in my post on Why Study History?, history allows us to contextualize modern events, identify trends and forecast potential outcomes, refine our usage of logic to understand causes and effects, and understand who we are as people. It’s not a prescriptive or a crystal ball, but it allows us to be more informed about humanity and what we’ve done throughout time. Most importantly, the study of history is valuable because it provides a framework for our ability to think about events “historically”.

Whether or not you care about national politics, society, or ancient civilizations, you still think about the events that happen to you personally. We live our lives and accumulate experiences that shape us in many ways. As we grow older, we look back and consider those events in our youth and compare our present and future selves to that. Who was that role model you looked up to? What was that one traumatic experience you never want to repeat? What are you doing right now and what outcomes to you hope will happen to you in the future? In short, we use historical skills every time we contextualize and rationalize our own existence and our place in the world.

While the study of history may not seem valuable there is still value in your own life and how you organize and recognize your agency of it. We would not be the master’s of our own lives if we weren’t able to use historical skills to some extent.

References

Weale, A. (2012). Army of Evil: A History of the SS. New York, NY: Penguin.

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