What Is History?

2 min
at 11:43 PM

History is an argument about how we got here and why. But who defines ‘here’ and ‘why’, or ‘who and ’how’ for that matter? Teacher David Ellison struggles with questions like these every day.

I’ve taught history for 36 years, but still wonder what history is. “It’s what happened, stupid!” Rush Limbaugh quipped. I think Napoleon came closer to the mark with his definition, “an agreed-upon myth.”

My teachers dutifully passed on the myth of America’s eternal exceptionalism, a sanitized catechism of names and dates to be memorized, and I hated it.

Fortunately in Latin class, I translated Julius Caesar’s rendition of the Siege of Alesia. It was such an exciting, desperate battle, but troubling nonetheless. After all, Caesar emerged the hero because he’d won and got to write the story. But it was his foe, Vercingetorix, who’d been fighting for his people’s freedom. And Caesar went on to destroy the Roman republic. So, was Caesar a hero or not? What a mess! And I was hooked!

The more I teach history, the less I trust it; and the more I love it. Someone is always making choices: What gets told and how? Who and what gets left out? Trust no one, I tell my students, least of all me.

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Nonetheless, the United States was exceptional because, 2,000 years after Caesar, we finally recreated a republic on Earth—but only for wealthy, white men. Our history is a messy tale of the ongoing struggle between a wealthy oligarchy and rest of us. And, yes, our Constitution is sacred, but the worst moments in our history—the Trail of Tears, Jim Crow, Japanese Internment, Guantanamo Bay—have occurred when we as a nation abandoned it.

You have inherited, I admit to my students, a deeply flawed, precarious democracy. What you bequeath to your grandchildren, however, is up to you. History, whatever it is, really matters; and your job—like Julius Caesar’s, Harriet Tubman’s, Jane Addams’, Theodore Roosevelt’s and countless others—is not just to study history, but to make it.

With a Perspective, I’m David Ellison.

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David Ellison teaches American history and LGBTQ studies in Union City.

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