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The Evolution of History -- Writer's Poke #253

A student of a colleague of mine recently got very upset with him because he used Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States as the class's textbook. She didn't appreciate what she saw as Zinn's liberal slant. Of course until very recently, the common person wasn't even worth historical investigation. History has typically been reserved for gods and generals.

"Does history change?" I ask my students. Of course it does, one responded. After all, historians dig into the archives, find out new information, and that new evidence changes the way we think about what has happened.

In truth, history is all about evidence, to be sure. But more than that, it's about focus and interpretation. And, that, my friends, is why history changes. There is no such thing as the past. It's all constructed. And as Winston Churchill himself once said, "History is written by the victors." That doesn't mean that all victors are liars, but it does indicate that history is slanted.

Maybe slanted history isn't a bad thing? After all, Emily Dickinson encouraged us to "Tell all the truth but tell it slant." Of course she was basically saying what Jack Nicholson would say a century later in A Few Good Men: "You want the truth? You can't handle the truth."

How does history evolve? Do you feel uneasy about the virtue of a truth told slant?

"History is the present. That's why every generation writes it anew. But what most people think of as history is its end product, myth." -- E. L. Doctorow


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