History is subjective. Our university, like most, offers a history degree as part of the College of Arts and Sciences. Many history professors would agree that history is more like an art, constantly evolving with new discoveries and theories.
History requires critical thinking. As most students can attest to the after hours of history lectures and research papers, there never seems to be an easy explanation for questions about history.
With these ideas in mind, we watched our nation’s politicians and journalists argue over history last week as if there is one simple answer. This latest left versus right battle was between all the usual suspects including Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and MSNBC host Chris Matthews, among others. At issue was a statement Bachmann made claiming that our founding fathers “worked tirelessly” to end slavery. Matthews responded by saying she was profoundly ignorant as well as a balloon head.
As always, there is truth in what both sides were claiming. Some of the founding fathers did not have slaves and even those who did worked toward ending slavery as early as the First Continental Congress. Of course, there was opposition in ending slavery and many of the founding fathers did have slaves. Furthermore, slavery was not abolished until 1865.
The point is that history is not simple. That point seems to be lost on this country’s politicians as well as the media. As there is no compromise, there usually are no concessions in intellectual conversations either.
Last week, however, was only one example in which people try to oversimplify history for their advantage. Most recently, issues such as building an Islamic Community Center, the Israeli and Palestinian conflict and the significance of electing our first black President have been oversimplified by both sides trying to make an argument.
Hopefully the public is smart enough to see beyond those arguments and recognize the complexity of these issues. The fact is it’s never that simple. Ask a history professor what caused the fall of Rome if you are curious for an example.
In another example, recall former President George W. Bush’s claim that history would look kindly upon him. While it seemed an audacious pronouncement at the time, try this exercise to reveal the possibility of it’s truth. How many bad presidents can you name?
Understanding history requires critical thinking with an open and informed mind, which probably explains why those usual suspects seem to fail at it so often. But here at UAA two of the goals listed by the history department themselves are to produce students who are able to complete historical research and perform critical thinking. Remember that next time you enter into a debate.