History: What Is It?

Posted on January 22, 2022


In our older ages, my wife Louise and I have discovered new interests. She is studying mathematics with her piano instructor who is a math and music student at UA, and I am reading about how podcasts work. Why is this? Basically, we like to learn.

I am an historian not only by training with all the right degrees and a bunch of publications but also because I like history. It is fascinating. And it is changing all the time.

Now, you may ask: how is this? Julius Caesar was born on such and such a day and the end of his life came on the floor of the Roman Senate where he was assassinated. How can you change that? You can’t. But you can ask: why was he murdered? And you will get different answers, all of them belonging to the realm of history.

History today now has become extremely volatile, changing almost daily by new and curious interpretations. Technically, this is called “revisionism.”

Training to be an historian is simple. Anyone can do it. You don’t need to be certified, recertified periodically, anointed perhaps, to write or speak history. This is not true with all professions.

In my family, we have both a physician and a corporate pilot. To become one or the other you need to go through demanding, and sometimes long, professional training, marked by certificates and degrees marking your passage through the training. With history, or English for example, anyone can do it, and somedays it seems everyone is doing it because history is basically our past, defines our presence, and often predicts our future.

 It is not prophecy as some think practiced by popular pundits and philosophers—and anybody–who think they can predict the future easily based on our past. True prophecy is in the Bible. But history can reasonably be used to guess at some future trends or events.

As one of the most notable historians of our past, George Santayana, wrote, ““Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.” It is a popular phrase. Winston Churchill paraphrased it in a speech before the House of Commons in 1948. I don’t need to explicate or explain the phrase.

People have made wars, for example, ever since history has been written, beginning, many think, with the “first” historian, a Greek named Thucydides (400-460 BC). But, beginning with the evolution or creation of man, thousands of years before Thucydides, men have been warring and “making” history.

The catch is that history, as defined by professionals, needs to be based on written documents, like letters, diaries, inscriptions on statues, anything written. Those who study the past by examining artifacts, like the physical remains of civilizations, are technically archaeologists, a subset of anthropology. But, in fact, it is all history.

But history is not just facts. It is the interpretation of those facts and here is where it really gets interesting. What did Thomas Jefferson mean by “All men are created equal?” Literally? Philosophically? Genetically? By Nature?

How about Abraham Lincoln. Did he support the end of slavery, or was he just a defender of northern nationalism in the face of Southern states righters? The documents on the “new” or “old” Lincoln dot the highways of history, the Internet, today.

He believed in the equal rights of the Blacks to liberty and justice, but he probably didn’t believe they were his social equals. In some documents, he favored retuning the slaves to Africa. Lincoln, in fact, changed opinions on some subjects—like slavery, Northern dependence on Southern tariffs, etc.—over time. like most of us do. You can, in fact, “prove” what Lincoln thought or did historically on just about any political or philosophical question, depending on which data you pick to consult.

The goal of a good historian is to place the events in the context of the times. If you choose to study what Martin Luther King, Jr. suffered to move his Civil Rights program forward, then do so within the larger, and longer history of Civil Rights in this country, from Jim Crow to Black Lives Matter. And then ask yourselves the really meaningful question. What does it all mean?

Or shorten your time span to the last fifty years, or about half a century from the assassinations in the 1960s of John F. Kennedy, MLK, Jr., and the President’s brother Robert Kennedy.

Which leads us to another historical question. Why have so many leaders—including Presidents—in U. S. history been assassinated?

And how about a really big question. American historians have occasionally claimed that the history of the U. S. in the world has been “exceptional.” Others agree but add “bad” to the phrase. We have been exceptionally bad in delivering what any people want. And what is it that a people want?

History is not only fascinating, but also instructive and lastly, done right, it explores the truth of our lives, past and present. The names and dates do not change. Caesar was still assassinated on March 15, 44 B.C. But defining, exploring, and fixing the truth proves to be a demanding rascal. As Pontius Pilate asked while interrogating Jesus on night before he was executed on the Cross, “what is the truth?”

Published as “History helps establish the truth of our lives, past and present,” in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday Jan. 8, 2022

Posted in: History