Student, Historian: How we carry the past into the future.

Why an “objective” history might not be the best approach.

Dean Young, Senior Columnist

A while after the shelter-in-place order had ended, back when we were all adjusting to the “new normal,” a relative of mine remarked on the fact that these days will be told in history books. It took me a moment to wrap my head around it. Conceptually, I could grasp that modern events will become history, but the idea that something so present will one day be recorded for posterity seemed hard to accept. 

The idea has since become a bit more acceptable, perhaps due to the time that has elapsed, but it also has raised an interesting, and perhaps concerning, issue. 

Imagine you were to send out an assignment to 10 randomly selected people to write a history chapter on the events of the last few years. You would be nearly guaranteed to receive differing accounts; but which one would qualify as history? Even if the 10 people had the same opinions, they would certainly differ in their experience of the times. 

Much as bystanders to an accident can see different events based on their physical position, so too do factors such as housing or occupation affect the events of history to individuals. Imagine comparing a record of the last few years from an emergency room doctor in a dense city to a farmer out in the country. Their experiences alone would make a distinctly different history, even without any differing opinions (political, societal or otherwise).

And yet opinions do differ — I doubt many would contest this point, especially in recent years, where the controversy of public opinion has poured into common view. With this in mind, we must recognize that these histories between our 10 hypothetical recruits could vary quite significantly, even with sections of “history” contradicting from report to report. With this in mind we have to ask a hard question: whose version gets recorded?

This becomes important to us, as students, as we look ahead to days where we might be asked about history, such as our experience living in St. Paul during the protests. Considering that we are tasked to carry the past into the future, how do we function as student historians?

Some might want to disregard the issue entirely by simply focusing on a history of objective facts. I have to say I find this idea very appealing. After all, we can “know” with certainty that George Washington was the first president, and that the Civil War started in 1861, consequently sidestepping bias altogether. However, this approach can end up being a bit short-sighted when we recognize the ways in which bias might still creep in through our choice of language (consider “guerrilla” versus “freedom fighter”), or in the events we choose to retell (or ignore). 

After enough examination it almost appears inevitable, but We are not in a hopeless fight to remove all biases and ideologies. In fact, rather than trying to strip them away entirely, we might benefit from noting them. 

Consider that many aspects of history are not mere dates and names, but rather the ideas and agendas which led to them. To ignore these movements can effectively lose the pulse of history; in the case of the above examples, these would be the ideas and agendas that led to our first president or our national split. Much in the same way, to sterilize recent history of its disagreements, opinions and biases would be to miss a major part of what made it historical. 

We can — and should — work to accurately portray history with historical rigor and candor, but we can also acknowledge our biases to our listener’s benefit. If any one of us would end up being one of the 10 aforementioned individuals, our account would certainly have an angle, but that angle would be the enriched product of our lived experience and viewpoints. Importantly, by being open with our angle, we can critically review our own biases.  I think the key here is to stay open, humble and informed, questioning views (foremost our own) critically. 

Perhaps you disagree with this biased assessment, in which case I am glad that you are considering it critically; that is exactly the idea. While we may not get to choose who writes down history, we can (and should) be prepared to contribute, recognizing that our ideology — including our bias — is what makes us a part of a living history.