Jenna Tomayko Honors Foundations of Western Civilizatons

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Jenna Tomayko

Honors Foundations of Western Civilizatons

Final Essay Exam
Can Usable History Shape Society?
The value to be gained from the infinite accounts of various historical records is unparalled. While the debate over the usability of these versions of history ensues many are left to decide for themselves the reliability of the information that has been recorded throughout time. A common view of historical documentation today is that most is an opinionated interpretation of historical events recorded by intellectuals such as writers, philosophers, and humanists that have created an intellectual history, that is history that is social, political, or cultural history seen through the work of intellectuals who are contemporaries with the events of their time.1 While this is, in my opinion, a valid argument we must evaluate what history that does remain to determine its true worth.

One of, if not the most challenging obstacle for most historians to overcome is to develop the ability to separate oneself from their preconceived beliefs and biases so that they are able to fully understand and record history as it truly happened as opposed to how they might have interpreted the events. Samuel S. Wineburg states that, “…historical thinking, in its deepest forms, is neither a natural process nor something that springs automatically from psychological development. Its achievement, I argue, actually goes against the grain of how we ordinarily think. This is one of the reasons why it is much easier to learn names, dates, and stories than it is to change the fundamental mental structures that we use to grasp the meaning of the past.”2 It is our innate tendency to observe and interpret history through our own personal filter and thusly document it as such and these alterations, however minute, could quite possibly diminish the credibility of the information.

Historian’s inclination to omit historical events that were deemed too irrelevant or insignificant to warrant permanent documentation is perhaps the leading argument against the validity of what is understood to factual evidence. These omissions, however unfortunate, have been proven to be a significant portion of history, which will remain hidden from history’s memory. Wineburg states, “…Robert E. Lee or the Wright Brothers were expunged because they had the misfortune of being dead, white, and male, Nash and his colleagues responded by adding up the names of people fitting this description -- 700 plus in all -- and announcing that this number was many times the grand total of all women, African Americans, Latinos, and Indians individually named."3 During ancient times and even to a degree now, power was measured by race, gender and wealth. Smaller minorities didn’t have much of a say if any in political proceedings and even in social atmospheres and accordingly did not play a major part of what was recorded in history.

With both of these factors in place it becomes the burden of the reader to determine for him or herself whether the information that’s been recorded is usable. History today is derived from archives of assortments of factual historical works some predating much of the fabricated mythical folktales and poems of the Greeks among other ancient cultures. Historians also look for solid evidence as the primary starting point for any historical belief or debate as opposed to improvable ideas and concepts. Dates and time frames have also been accurately determined for most historical events, which previously relied on the disreputable guesswork of ancient historians. Today, I believe it is accurate to argue that much of recorded history, while it may be incomplete or product of interpretations is in fact usable.

Not only is history subject for us to analyze and interpret but it serves as a guide to study and learn from as well. As Nicholas Clairmont so famously stated, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.”4 The thousands of years of records, texts, scripture, and stories provide the world with insight into the past so that they may use this knowledge as a foundation to build a better future. History has shaped humans in that way just as humans have in turn shaped history, being the ones who, apart from natural phenomena, have actually created the history to be recorded. Both rely on one another to maintain balance and harmony. Without the guidance of history it would be extremely challenging for humans to progress in a productive manner. Equally, the balance is maintained by the heinous, violent, sometimes spiritual, religious and even political acts of mankind who continually provide daily accounts of history to be documented by the intellectuals of present day. To know every detail of the past untainted by the interpretations and minor alterations of the people who recorded them will always be a mysteriously elusive task that few if any shall achieve success with. History from its origins until now has been documented for the use of generations to study and learn from as well as laid the foundation for the history of the future to be constructed upon. To interpret, to learn, to shape, and to be shaped, that will be history’s eternal legacy.


1 Evans, Stephanie, Orr, Alan and Robert Merrill. “Intellectual History: The Pedagogy of a ‘Usable Past.’” (Cambridge University Press, 2005) Accessed December 8, 2014.
2 Samuel S. Wineburg. Historical thinking and other unnatural acts., (Phi Delta Kappan, March 1999)
3 Samuel S. Wineburg. Historical thinking and other unnatural acts., (Phi Delta Kappan, March 1999)
4 Clairmont, Nicholas.

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