History is not a pretty subject

By: 
Patrick Fisher, The New Prague Times

When did we come to the belief that history should be a pretty subject or a comfortable one? On the flip side of that question, when did we decide that it should be all dark or that one aspect of a person should define who they are throughout history? When you really dig deep into history it can be something of a conundrum. On one side it’s dirty and bloody, full of wars and revolutions. On the other, there are struggles and inspiring stories of people who worked hard for a cause even though they never saw the outcome. Overall history is something that should not leave a person feeling comfortable. Inspired or ashamed, but never comfortable.

I realize that in our education system, more often than not, history is presented briefly with some of the bigger aspects of it only touched on lightly. It’s understandable as our educators are trying to stuff more than 200 years of only United States history into about 12 years of schooling. Add in when explorers found the North and South American continents, and then going forward, that’s another 300, and some, years.

One aspect of our time period is that we seem to be caught between those who want to present, more or less, a pretty picture of history, and those who want to present history as seen through the prism of today with mostly the warts showing. It seems that going too far into either side is not a good idea. If we have nothing but the pretty aspects we’re really not going to learn the complete picture. Having nothing but the darker aspects of a person or time period will, to paraphrase William Shakespeare, allow the evil they did to live on, while all the good people did is interred with their bones.

A good example is that some of the founding fathers are today being held up to a deeper scrutiny. In newspapers and, especially across social media, there are stories suggesting changes, such as the removal of a portrait, a statue or, here in Minnesota, the changing of the name of Patrick Henry High School. From what I understand, the main concern is the fact that there were those of the founding fathers who owned slaves. I’ll agree that whether a person owned slaves is something that should be mentioned when studying the history about them, but what else did the person do? Personally, I want to know more about a person for a complete picture. Did they simply accept slavery or did they try to change the system to bring about its end? This is where one of the conundrums of history pops up. There were those founding fathers who realized they had just fought a war for independence, yet there were citizens who were not free due to slavery, a system that dates back thousands of years and existed in nearly every country. Unfortunately some of the founders wanted it to continue as their economies depended on the cheap labor of slavery. Other founders argued against it as they found it despicable. Anti-slavery laws were already coming about, Massachusetts and Vermont had banned slavery in the mid-1700s. In what could be considered a dark deal, slavery was allowed to continue to keep the young country united. A good example of how history is dirty. The argument over slavery continued, festered and eventually led to the bloody Civil War.

Now, more than a century later we have our own conundrum. Do we take down all the statues, paintings and change names of buildings because the people don’t live up to our current systems of beliefs? Do we stop having Civil War reenactments because there’s a Confederate flag or the display represents an uncomfortable time in our country’s history?

I’m of the mindset that we don’t have to take all the statues and paintings down or change all the names. Instead we use them as teaching points about how someone did great deeds, but they also believed in something that even in their own time was considered wrong. We teach how an object or a reenactment represents a complex time or darker chapter in our nation’s history. If we take down all the statues or paintings, change all the names or stop all the reenactments then we are hiding that history away, until it’s forgotten, which makes it easier for those events to happen again.

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