Studying and Constructing History: A Historian’s Take, pp. 2 of 7

Another significant distinction between school and academic history is that of presentation. Most of us would be familiar with the parable of the four blind men and an elephant, the origins and meanings of which are debated (yet again a problem that historians would be familiar with). It tells the story of how four blind men, who had not encountered an elephant before, came across one and had to form their own conceptions of what an elephant was by touching it. Each of them did so, but only on one specific part of the massive animal. Their resulting conception of the elephant was therefore limited by their subjective experience of the different body parts and, in one variation of this popular story, the differing descriptions of the animal they proffered each other led to suspicions of dishonesty and conflict. So too the case with history. Many today understand different parts of the same story (or what we might call from different perspectives) and yet insist that their part (or what they understood) to be the truth of what happened in the past. At the same time, while some may suspect they do not know the whole story, the massiveness of the story deters them from finding out more, preferring to remain comfortably within the scope of what had been presented to them as history and, therefore, the past that happened.

Yet, is history the same as the past? The way history is presented in textbooks, with explicit training of skills and historical concepts, and often with an eye on assessment, tends to encourage in our students the idea that history is about past events and past lives, and therefore what they learn in history lessons is the truth of what happened in the past. [i] In short, the event in question had already happened and the outcomes a foregone conclusion, simply because we cannot turn back the clock and return to the past to change the way things happened. We cannot reverse time and change the outcomes of World War II, or the horrific terrors of the Holocaust or prevent the rise of the Cultural Revolution. Because we cannot change the past, it therefore gives rise to a very common perception of history that it is all about knowing what happened in the past and, in some uncommon cases, being able to explain what happened in the past.

Consider, however, what environmental historian William Cronon posits as the main difference between history and the past:

An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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