Idealism and Realism in the Writing of History


Peter Gibbon teaches education at the Boston University School of Education.  Check out his rambling piece at Humanities titled “Historians Disagree About Everything, or So It Seems.”

Do we need more idealism in our writing about the past?  Has the social history led to a depressing history void of heroes and inspiring stories?  Is Ben Franklin correct when he says “Indeed the general natural tendency of reading good history must be, to fix in the minds of youth deep impressions of the beauty and usefulness of virtue of all kinds?  Or do today’s historians, to quote Howard Zinn, “start from the premise that there are terrible wrongs all about us.”

Here is a taste of Gibbon’s piece:

All historians hope that immersion in the past will make readers more sympathetic, tolerant, and kind, that it will inculcate skills—close reading, appreciation of context, and understanding of multiple causation. Historians of the marginalized claim more. They tend to be reformers who believe that knowledge of the past can improve the present. Most historians, however, are wary of claiming too much for their craft. Skeptical of George Santayana’s claim that “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” they doubt history’s predictive power and reject facile analogies. Contemporary historians do not see many lessons in the past. Looking back, they seem comfortable with the words irony and tragedy. For statesmen, they recommend humility.

Historians battle over the nature of history, the uses of history, and different interpretations of the past. They, along with teachers, publishers, and parents, also argue about how history is depicted to young people—whom they all agree are ignorant of the nation’s past. Progressive historians are opposed to myths and legends that nations have always used to unify and uplift themselves. In Founding Myths: Stories That Hide Our Patriotic Past, Ray Raphael reminds us that Paul Revere did not ride alone, that some soldiers at Valley Forge threatened mutiny and deserted, and that some American slaves fought for the British. Raphael is opposed to mythical history because it romanticizes war and emphasizes single causes, privileges individuals, and slights collective actions.

Not so, say traditionalists. History is about collective memory and national identity, which build unity and pride, encourage gratitude and civic engagement, and validate sacrifice in defense of our nation. “Romanticizing our past is something to be cultivated, rather than to be ashamed of,” argues Robert Kaplan. Ironically, one of the most effective defenders of mythological history was Charles Thompson, secretary to the Continental Congress, who decided to write secret memoirs of the American Revolution. He burned his account and his notes, giving this explanation: “I could not tell the truth without giving great offense. Let the world admire our patriots and heroes.”

Such unparalleled access to our past, such a comprehensive and realistic portrait of our founding, stimulates conflicting interpretations and raises a number of questions. Can this or any history compete for the attention of busy, future-oriented, materialistic America devoted to social media? Do Americans understand that history is not just facts adding up to an agreed-upon narrative but rather a never-ending debate? Does this in-depth, inclusive history make its way into textbooks in schools, or do these books still portray a mythical, triumphant past, as James Loewen claims in Lies My Teacher Told Me? Should history build character and patriotism as Ben Franklin and Washington Irving hoped or should teachers concentrate on skills and citizenship?

Read the entire piece here.

2 thoughts on “Idealism and Realism in the Writing of History

  1. Wow. As always, thank you so much for posting this article and asking this question. I tell my students all the time that the study of history is far from perfect. I ask my students to respect the history, but question the narrative and connect it to today. Thank you for keeping these conversations going.


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