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.