One Tough Chapter to Write: Revising Revisionism for Revisionists

My unit on political geography is proving to be more difficult to write than I thought. I was hoping to finish it earlier this week, but double checking my facts on history have slowed me up.  I am doing my absolute best to make sure that any time I reference history, I am very careful in choosing my words.

Here is an example of what I mean. This is an original sentence that I wrote to describe the key term suffrage.

  • States who are most successful provide the right to suffrage, that is, the right to vote.

I needed to check myself because there is some serious ethnocentric bias in that statement. So I tried to leverage it a bit by adding the following:

  • From the position of the Western World, states who are most successful provide the right to suffrage, that is, the right to vote.

In another case, I am going out on a limb when saying:

  • Azerbaijan resents the land that was lost to Nogorno-Karabakhi Armenians in the conflict; further, Azerbaijan has caused an already landlocked Armenia severe economic problems by closing off its borders, making it difficult to import goods.

While I plan to keep the sentence and I am familiar with the conflict between the two groups, I am still conflicted with suggesting that I know how Azerbaijan feels about the land that was lost. In order to use the word resent, I must make sure that my sources state that Azerbaijan is closing off its borders out of spite and for no other reason which in this case, I was able to do (and cite the credible source).

I am trying to be particularly careful not to speak for a group or mention how they feel. When writing history, it is important to stick to facts as much as possible, but without eliminating necessary ones.

Example:

  • The Confederation of the United States only lasted for approximately twelve years as a Constitutional Convention was called in Philadelphia in 1787 and a new constitution granted more powers to the federal government.

Here the reader might then think, “Well then, everything was great and sorted out!  The U.S. is now an official federal government!”  But in actuality, there were many anti-federalists who opposed the constitution and those who were unhappy that there were no Bill of Rights. Historians constantly debate about elements that are written in and left out of textbooks.  Is it important that my readers know that there was opposition, or is that better left for another class? How big is this book going to be anyway?

My master’s historiography course taught me about how to write with more cautious eyes, and it is not an easy thing to do.  Historians are cautious to not write what is known as revisionist history, history that is written after the fact, from viewpoints that were not present at the time. Example: Is it appropriate to write about how the native Mesoamericans were severely taken advantage of, abused, and are the result of genocidal acts?  While Mesoamericans were taken advantage of in terms of sourcing natural wealth, some natives also benefited from the European colonization in that they gained protection from other aggressive native tribes. But to go back and say that the Europeans created genocide is difficult to prove because the contemporary definition was not written during the 1500’s and a lack of written records/journals don’t tell us that natives were killed/forcibly moved because of their race. Shady isn’t it? In the modern World, the acts of the conquistadors would no doubt be classified as genocide, but historians are careful to try and not interpret the past until they have the primary sources that can help make those conclusions, otherwise they are technically rewriting history.

There was one book that we read in my course that really drove the point home, History Wars: The Enola Gay and Other Battles for the American Past. One of the conflicts in the book was what museum curators and historians should do with the Enola Gay plane flown by Colonel Paul Tibbets, that was used to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Since WWII, the public offers different opinions on whether the bombings were necessary.  Was it an act of genocide or an effort to stop a war that would otherwise not end? But the problem at hand was centered on where to display the plane after the fact and how to write those little museum wall descriptions that grade school students end up reading. The conflict can be heard in an excerpt from the book.

  • Special advisor to the Japan Foundation and former ambassador to Japan, Martin Harwit expressed:  “Without the most careful preparations, the display of the Enola Gay would arouse widespread anger among many groups.” Harwit called attention to the potentially “serious problem” of seeing to stage a “U.S. celebration,” to groups who might have been victim or opposers of the decision to drop the bomb.

Where the plane is displayed and at what museum matters, as does every single word that is written on those plaques.  Who is it written for? Will it offend? Will it be perceived as braggadocios? History is fickle and personal interpretation after the fact can really change the game. How should we tell American kids today what the significance of the Enola Gay was? What if they their descendants were the ones in internment camps? Should history be sensitive? Every word matters, not just the adjectives and adverbs that describe the occurrence.

In conclusion, I am not a proponent of having elementary-high school teachers write their own history book for their students.  I have my education in Social Science Education and endorsements to teach it, but not to write it. There is a lot of work that historians conduct just to write a single textbook. I can only imagine the battles that are fought between the hundreds of the PhD’s that write segments for a single text. I have a great amount of appreciation for the work of historians and the texts that they have provided teachers with. Even though I have taken a course in historiography and have a master’s degree, I am not in the position to drive the academic field itself. Luckily, my political geography unit does not require a ton of historical evidence that places me out of my element, but it is definitely trying.

I suspect that history is probably the most quirky with respect to this topic. Even though new math formulas are created, Y will always equal mx+b. I don’t know math professors, is there such a thing as revisionist math?

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Linenthal, Edward T., and Tom Engelhardt, eds. History Wars: THe Enola Gay and  Other Battles for the American Past. New York City: Holt Paperbacks, 1996. Print.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Loved the post. I had actually thought of something similar a while back and how somenone could stay unbiased by his perspective on his view of history, but then I thought, I’m sure the dictioned people that write these history books sure have a lot of common sense and are able to offer a view on history in an impartial way. But after reading your post I guess I’ll have to start doubting again. Thanks once again for an incredible post Human Imprint.

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