Hindsight is never 20/20

Can you recommend a definitive history of….?

As a historian, people often ask me to recommend history books about the American West.  Many also ask me to recommend the most accurate biography of some historical person.  Due to my historical research and heritage, the questions usually relate to biographies of Theodore Roosevelt, Buffalo Bill Cody, or other western characters.  The American West’s history contains some very controversial and contentious events, all of which have generated various opinions labeling historical figures as the “good guys” and the “bad guys.” Or judging conflicts as either “victorious battles” or “horrid massacres.” Let me be clear. THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A DEFINITIVE HISTORY! 

Wait a minute!  Why are there no definitive histories in existence?

Many of us have mistakenly learned that history is nothing but the facts.   That may be true for dates, names of individuals participating in historical events, locations of events, etc.  Many of us “learned” history by regurgitating dates, identifying people involved in specific historical events, memorizing speeches, and reciting phrases from essential documents.  But that is only part of our understanding of the past.  Many students learned the “ingredients” of the past in history classes: the who, what, when, and where.  This information is great if you’re going to win Trivial Pursuit!  But to better understand the past and to determine history’s relevancy, we must think like historians who continually debate the “how” and “why.” Keep in mind that history is like cooking a recipe.  And like all recipes,  we may use the same ingredients, but the final product will vary from cook to cook. Historian’s ingredients are facts, and their interpretations will differ from one historian to another.  If someone proclaims their work to be a definitive study of the past, many other historians will step forward to offer their insight as to why it is not! 

Any history tends to be revisionist history! 

History is not static. Because an event occurred in the past, it does not mean our interpretations of historical events and peoples have not changed through the last few years, the generations, or the centuries.  This ongoing reinterpretation of the past is encouraged by scholars and publishers!  Any book, article, or paper proposal asks one central question:  How does your research and interpretation about this subject compare to past scholarship?  Ultimately, the publisher, journal editor, or symposium organizer wants to know how your work contributes to and challenges established scholarship.  In other words, how are your findings different than other historians who wrote about this same person or historical event?  This process makes sense; why would any publisher want to publish a book that conveys the same information and findings expressed in another historian’s past work?  Every book, every article, every lecture by a historian should reinterpret past interpretations.  A good historian never wants to be accused of just rehashing old theories without offering their differing perspectives!   

What influences our interpretations of the past?

The best way to answer this question is with another question, why do humans record history?  There are several professional and personal reasons why we undertake the continued reinterpretation of the past:

  • To learn from past mistakes
  • To measure progress or the lack of progress
  • Nationalism or patriotism
  • Heritage
  • Entertainment

All of these reasons serve as the basis for historical research.  They also serve as lenses, shaping how we view the past.  Each one of these reasons for studying history, or “lenses,” forces us to consider some aspects of the past in deceptive sharpness, as well as completely obliterate our sight of other elements. 

Seeing the past through these lenses…

Consider how these reasons may influence your views of history and how it may shape other historians’ interpretations.  In looking to learn from past mistakes, we tend to force our perspectives of past events to fit in with our current issues.  How many times when the United States enters a foreign conflict overseas do people refer to the Vietnam War?  Does this need to argue for or against entering a war shape our views of the Vietnam War?  Measuring progress/failures in the past is also elusive. In many cases, we overhype a historical event as either a giant step forward or the worst event ever to occur. This tendency often stems from our views of the present-day.  Nationalism is a potent lens. Let’s face it, numerous citizens believe they live in the best country in the world, be they Americans, Chinese, Russian, or whatever nationality they may be.  National histories usually offer patriotic interpretations, celebrating the accomplishments of the country in question.  Yes, this is where we hear about the victors writing history.  Most of us learn about our history through family members.  Heritage is the most powerful of lenses.  Many of us like to see our ancestors positively or dismiss any horrors they may have inflicted on others.  For many years, history has also been a source of entertainment.  We like to learn about the past through drama or a morality tale.  We want the good people of the past to be the victors and the bad guys to be the losers.  The past’s nuances tend to ruin a good history when we view the past through the lens of entertainment.

So what?  Why should our differing views of the past matter?

We should study the past to learn about current issues and ourselves.  There may be no definitive histories out there, but there are some excellent relevant histories.  We need to recognize that “hindsight is NEVER 20/20” and consider why many interpretations of the historical past differ from our own.  The past is prologue, and we live in a complex global society.  Suppose we merely accept our current interpretations and do not listen to counter perspectives of history. In that case, we not only do a significant disservice to others but also our ancestors and ourselves.    

If we hope to slog our way through the messiness and divisiveness of the present day, we need to realize our views of past people and events are just as messy and divisive.  Thankfully, there is no such thing as a definitive history.  Reinterpreting our past keeps it alive and tells us much more about ourselves!    

Future posts…

In the future, I will address these lenses in greater detail. I will offer specific examples of how the past is never 100% clear.  Please comment and ask questions!