Historical Disillusionment

"There may have been more than three Wise Men!"

In terms of disillusionment, history has never been high on my list. I am currently enrolled in a master's program: American and New England Studies. Not a bad program on the whole, although, like with all universities, there's a parochial atmosphere that makes Orem, Utah look positively laid-back and c'est la vie in comparison.

What has struck me—and this isn't necessarily a university thing—is the emphasis on "what you thought you knew" versus "what is really true." This runs from professors who want to debunk everything, professors who want to retranslate history into modern (and therefore, seemingly more accurate) paradigms and professors who simply want to complicate the picture.

The last I'm all in favor of. Where I get bemused is that in order to argue that history is complicated, it apparently is necessary to argue that most people's version of history isn't complicated enough (because, after all, if the professors weren't giving us something new, why would we pay their salaries?). Several times, professors have said things like, "Well, this is most people's image of . . . " as in, "Most people have this image that the West was going to make their fortunes."

I can't figure out who these people are. I always thought the West was a big, scary desert that the Mormons irrigated (part of it, anyway). I never assumed that prostitutes had hearts of gold or that mining wasn't incredibly dangerous or that people didn't get disillusioned and heartachy and downright lonely. In reference to the other part of my course, I never assumed that the Puritans were one monolithic group or that New Englanders were devoid of racism in the 19th century. But I am given that information as if it will surprise me.

(Well, actually, about the Puritans, it would be more accurate to say that if I'd thought about it, I wouldn't have thought the Puritans were one monolithic group, any more than Crusaders or Mormons or Catholics or Rhode Islanders or, you name it.)

I want to learn, but in order to learn I don't feel it necessary to believe that (1) there is a monolithic version of history out there that my education is going to get the better of; (2) if there is one monolithic version of history, the people (i.e. high school teachers) who gave it to me are bad and/or misguided.

I've more or less addressed (1). Regarding (2), I'm not sure I took my high school teachers very seriously so it's kind of a moot point. But even when I was given a simplistic or monolithic version of history, I never considered myself a victim of imposed ignorance.

Take the initial quote. I was told the classic Christmas story as a child. I grew up with it. And then, about the time I hit teenagehood, I encountered the "There could have been more than three Wise Men!" statement with a kind of wink, wink, nudge, nudge implication: We have insight! Aren't people doofusi for not knowing what we know? (This is leaving aside the whole Historical Jesus approach to the story which is the next step if one is really enamoured with the whole "We have insight! Aren't people doofusi?" thing.)

My reaction was, Sure, yeah, whatever, neat. Maybe growing up in the home that I did I got used to hearing history discussed from multi-angles. As it is, the idea that there is more out there or that the story and the reality may not match up completely never surprised me. Not because I think people are big, fat liars but because . . . well, I don't know exactly. Why would I get upset? History is confusing and multi-layered--to borrow one of my professor's phrases--and people's memories are bad enough with what happened last week, let alone what happened 1000 years ago.

Subsequently, I've never faulted teachers for giving me the simplistic version. Whenever I do any kind of research, I go to the kid's section first and read the "simple" version. Got to have something to build on. I can understand people being a bit more upset that they got the "Caucasian-only" version, but since I'm Caucasian, again, I've just figured: got to start somewhere. In other words, it never occurred to me that I should believe everything I was told. Even in High School.

In terms of religion, for example, it doesn't bother me that I've gotten non-history versions of stories at church because the point of religion isn't history (per se). The Mormon Church's current emphasis on the pioneer movement is to emphasis the bad stuff, rather than the good stuff. According to the Marxists in my program, this is correct: life for the pioneers was horrible! It was terrible! Life sucks! Everybody's a victim!

Once they'd gotten over that, though, they would say that the Church wields the power that governs an economic and political system that KEEPS THE TRUTH FROM PEOPLE. But the Church isn't in the business of teaching history so why should it be forced to? It is trying to make history, to create an image that can speak to a worldwide church, and the sacrificing pioneer who gives up all for the gospel is easier to translate across time and nations than the happy, dancing pioneer.

To give my professors some credit, their point is that everybody has always done this (produced an image that speaks to a particular goal, ideology, etc.) and that then, darn it all, people go and think it is the "real" thing. But one could argue, effectively, that there's never been a point where there was a real thing, in the sense of untouched history. Which is probably the truth. And . . . so? What am I suppose to do with that knowledge?

What I'm suppose to do (and here we get into an entirely different subject) is APPLY IT TO MY LIFE. I'm supposed to clutch my head and cry, "I've never thought of that before." I'm supposed to realize that Bush isn't telling me the truth! He is using current history to push his own personal ideology on the American people!!!!!! Oh, no!!!!

But if everybody is "touching up" history, including me, the students and the professors, shouldn't I be more wary that my personal political ideology is getting in the way of me understanding a historical personage?

Because Bush is, whether anybody likes it or not. Ha ha ha.


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