by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"History becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe."... ...H.G. Wells.
Commentary of the Day - October 28, 2002: History on Purpose. Guest commentary by Tom Cordle.
When I was growing up, history was taught with a purpose. Heroes were heroes; heroes like Thomas Jefferson were made objects of veneration, pure and simple. But revisionist history has shown Jefferson to be neither pure nor simple. How is history to judge a man who declares "all men are created equal" while owning 200 slaves?
So what about revisionist history? And what about history and the teaching of it?
Classical historians often wrote with a firm purpose. In my new book The Disappearing Cemetery, I cite a quote attributed to Calgacus, the leader of the Picts, by Roman historian Tacitus.
"The Romans create a desolation and call it peace."
This "quote" was far more likely from Tacitus and was a thinly disguised condemnation of Roman imperialism. Historians have always been fond of putting words in other people's mouths if it moves the story or makes their point.
This is the first (and maybe the only) fact that should be taught about history: History is always told with a point of view. Sadly, we have been taught that history, like news, is neutral. Nothing could be further from the truth. In our own history, American victories are called battles while Indian victories are called massacres.
It is critical to present revisionist history in our books and our classrooms to counterbalance "classical" history. But revisionist history is at least equally dangerous when it is written to promote a contemporary political agenda. This is no search for the truth; it is just another blatant power grab with an ink-stained sword.
But worse than either "classical" history or "revisionist" history is the history which appears in most modern textbooks. These are either corrupted by political correctness or so stripped of any controversy as to be utterly boring. They are the main reason so many students abhor history.
Students may abhor history, but administrators abhor controversy -- and history is controversy. Readers of my book continually ask me why history isn't taught in the way I presented it. My only response is a cop-out: Teachers can only teach what they are permitted to teach.
Give me an openly biased history which tells only one side of the story rather than a "neutral" telling, a useless recitation of facts – names and dates unread or unremembered. For balance, I will read an openly biased history told by the other side. In the end, that is the best road to the truth.
In researching The Disappearing Cemetery, I was amazed at how difficult it is to find the truth about any controversial matter. Most of us can agree that Hitler was a bad guy, but how about William Wallace? Macbeth? William Tecumseh Sherman? Nathan Bedford Forrest? All of these historical figures appear in my book, and I offered an opinion about all of them. To do less is not only uninformative, it is a cowardly dodge of the writer's prerogative and purpose.
For history does have a purpose. It's purpose is to inform us, else we make the same mistakes again. Or as Mark Twain put it:
"History does not repeat itself; it rhymes."
©2002, Tom Cordle
Tom Cordle lives in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. He has a BA in political science which left him totally unprepared to make a living. This led to jobs in music, sales, and construction which left him knowing very little about everything. Obviously, this was a perfect background for a writer. To learn more about Tom Cordle's new book, The Disappearing Cemetery send email to .
© 2002 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.