Why History?

How much did yesterday effect what you did today? How much does your childhood influence your attitudes and your situation in life? Probably your past life influences your current situation and thinking enough for you to say, if you really think about it, that history is important to you.

When you get to know someone, what do you want to know about them? Don't you trade stories and histories, experiences and relationships? You would have to say, then, that other people's histories are important to you.

"..history is important. More than any other topic, it is about us. Whether one deems our present society wondrous or awful or both, history reveals how we arrived at this point. Understanding our past is central to our ability to understand ourselves and the world around us" (Loewen, 12-13).

"Those who study the past are "much better off" than those who do not because they seek "an expanded horizon"... [history] lets us experience vicariously what we can't experience directly: a wider view.

"The backward gaze is also maturing; it offers... recognition of how much of it we will never know. "Historical consciousness.. leaves you, as does maturity itself, with a simultaneous sense of your own significance and insignificance"" (Char Miller. "Rear Window." Texas Observer, 2/27/04, 26-27).

Why, then, do most of us find history so boring? Because the textbooks make it boring. In Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, James Loewen tells us that most history textbooks leave out ALL the interesting stuff that makes it pertinent to us. Even worse, textbooks create social myths by not telling us the whole story.

Howard Zinn, in A People's History of the United States, says that most history books assume that all the important history is made by the political and economic leaders of a country. We don't learn anything about what the rest of the people in the country were doing, thinking, or presenting as alternatives. Again, we are not given the whole story.

If we don't know the whole story, how can we practice critical thinking about current events and about our own lives? Let's take one example: the social myth which we celebrate every year as Thanksgiving. The Thanksgiving myth is that the Pilgrims settled the United States in 1620. And in so doing they had to fight off indians repeatedly. The following are some notes from Loewen's book:

"British and French fisherman, landing in Massachusetts for fresh water and supplies in 1617, brought the plague to the American indians. "Within three years the plague wiped out between 90 percent and 96 percent of the inhabitants of coastal New England... Unable to cope with so many corpses, the survivors abandoned their villages" (81).

What the Pilgrims found were settled farms, with the crops already planted and growing, deserted by Indians fleeing the plague. The Pilgrims "found it easy to infer that God was on their side. John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, called the plague "Miraculous"" (81).

"These epidemcs probably constituted the most important geopolitical event of the early seventeenth century. Their net result was that the British, for their first fifty years in New England, would face no real Indian challenge" (81).

The plagues "continued west, racing in advance of the line of culture contact... Disease played the same crucial role in Mexico and Peru as it did in Massachusetts... When the Spanish marched into Tenochtitlan [now Mexico City], there were so many bodies [dead from the plague] that they had to walk on them" (82-3).

"..the population of the Americas [was] one hundred million in 1492.. Europe had only about seventy million people when Columbus set forth. The Europeans' advantages in military and social technology might have enabled them to dominate the Americas.. but not to "settle" the hemisphere. For that, the plague was required" (83).

".. the land was, in reality, not a virgin wilderness, but recently widowed" (84).

We also tend, in favor of the Pilgrims, to ignore Jamestown which was settled first. "Historians could hardly tout Virginia... The Virginians' relations with the Indians were particularly unsavory...the early Virginians engaged in bickering, sloth, even cannibalism. They spent their early days digging random holes in the ground, haplessly looking for gold instead of planting crops. Soon they were starving and digging up putrid Indian corpses to eat or renting themselves out to Indian families as servants" (89-90).

"..the Pilgrims hardly "started from scratch" in a "wilderness." Throughout southern New England, Native Americans had repeatedly burned the underbrush, creating a parklike environment... They chose Plymouth because of its beautiful cleared fields, recently planted in corn, and its useful harbor and "brook of fresh water." It was a lovely site for a town. Indeed, until the plaque, it had been a town.." (90). One of the first things the Pilgrims did was go through the town, looting the possessions of the Indians. "..the Pilgrims continued to rob graves for years" (91).

"More than any other celebration.. Thanksgiving celebrates our ethnocentrism... God on our side, civilization wrested from wilderness, order from disorder, through hard work and good Pilgrim character traits" (93).

The first question we might want to ask is, What are our assumptions and biases as a result of the Thanksgiving story? Do we see American Natives as unfortunate savages who had to be fought so that we could obtain the land? Do we see ourselves as the prophets of civilization? Is it okay to kill others if they are not as "civilized" as we are?

Another question we might want to ask is, What ELSE do we not know about our own history? A good place to start is Loewen's book... However, don't forget the Alternate News sources!

A good example of more recent history and the impact it has had is the article, "Society: We Made It, We Can Change It," by Michael J. Gilbert, faculty at UTSA. He writes, in part:

"An African proverb tells us that it takes an entire village to raise a child -- any child, every child. This proverb points out that the society we have is the one we created. Our society is the product of decisions and actions in our past as well as those we take today. The social conditions that foster intolerance, rage, violence and street crime are also products of our history. If the bad news is that we own our history: the good news is that, if we made it we can also change it."

For the entire article, see http://www.salsa.net/peace/UTSA/ti-4.html

"I wouldn't know how to make sense of the newspapers unless I had a sense of history, a sense of context. Let us say that all of us are embarked on the human story that starts however many thousands of years ago in Mesopotamia. And here we are in Chapter 498, and unless we know what happened in the first 497 chapters, we are at a loss. We then become subject to magical thinking" (Ruth Conniff. "Lewis Lapham." The Progressive, May, 2006: 31-34).


Loewen, James W. Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1995.

Zinn, Howard. A People's History of the United States. NY: Harper & Row, 1980.

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by Colby Glass