“Write from the heart,” the experts say. Many thoughts come to my mind as I ponder the question “What do YOU think the future of Civil War History will be?” Regularly, excitement drives me to the library (or to the “dangerous action” of buying books), well-written articles thrill me, and my family has been exposed to rapturous moments when I’m “oversharing” about a new book or idea. Looking ahead and trying to predict where historiography might go in the next decades presents many positive aspects of research and perspective, but a dark cloud looms on the horizon. Perhaps I am only fear-mongering, but I must answer the question from the heart and share one of my concerns for the future of historical studies and education.
We are losing our respect for the past.
I know, that statement seems impossible. Every year new Civil War history books hit the shelves. Historical sites and battlefields are still visited with quiet awe. People spend hours researching their genealogy and enjoy sharing their connection to common soldiers or heroes from the 1860’s. And, of course, new scholars continue to join the ranks of historians researching, writing, and teaching the history of America’s most costly conflict. How is it possible that we are losing respect for the past?
First, it is becoming more challenging to understanding the thought processes of the mid-19th Century. Secondly, there is pressure to conform to various agendas. Thirdly, it is becoming acceptable – perhaps even expected – to apologize for the past.
Society changes. Historians know this, but do they chose to truly remember it? World history is the record of the rise and fall of empires, rulers, and various philosophies. (Certainly, some things remain constant – good and evil, for example.) Most people will agree that America has undergone many significant changes in the last century and a half. One significant – and often overlooked – area of change has been in the worldviews accepted by American society. In the mid-19th Century, faith – usually based in some denomination of Christianity – shaped their worldview. 20th and 21st Century society has diversified, and numerous worldviews have become accepted. This creates a challenge for historians whose worldviews may be vastly different from those promoted in the 1860’s. For example, can an atheistic researcher lay aside his/her philosophy to accept that religion and Judeo/Christian heritage played a major role in a Civil War soldier’s life? Or will he/she suppress those religious elements, forcing a primary source document to fit into a modern worldview?
Pressure to conform is commonplace in the modern world. From elementary school to college and the workplace, people are expected to follow rules. Some are for safety, others for control of the mind or actions. With the plethora of worldviews, numerous philosophies have also made their way into history studies and interpretations. While many of these research projects have valid goals fitting into a modern philosophy, it is wrong to impose that viewpoint on the people of the Civil War era, holding them up as a supposed example of an ideal they may not have espouse. Conversely, there are attempts to make historical figures or primary sources conform to what has been arbitrarily deemed socially or historiographically acceptable.
With diverse worldviews and pressure to conform, historians are in danger of surrendering their mission to understand and teach the past in its proper context. They begin to apologize for historical facts. Certainly, there were great wrongs – socially, ethically, morally, politically, perhaps even religiously – during the Civil War era, but why do we need to apologize to a modern and supposed “enlightened and diversified” audience? Historians should be able to make it clear they are not advocating in favor of the unsavory details of the past and wishing to re-institute them, but they must be allowed to research, write, and teach about those very events/ideas/actions. If they are not permitted to fully explore the past – seeking to discover what people thought and how it caused them to act – there will be a significant gap in our understanding and teaching. A gap caused by society’s demand for conformance and a complete rejection of 19th Century worldview lens as a way to put history in its correct framework.
Historians cannot make heroes of imperfect human beings. (And, let’s be honest, we’re all imperfect.) They must understand the flaws and the triumphs of historical figures. They must try to appreciate the worldviews, societal norms, and culture of the past – placing historical people and events in their proper setting.
Ironically, the 21st Century societal pressures to conform, apologize, and sweep aside awkward facts is imposing an “un-liberal” view on history. Historians should seek to understand the past in its context, not necessarily agreeing with the values and actions, but not apologizing. Historians are not judges. They should be discerning, but they must seek to understand why and what happened in the past.
One day, history will consume us, taking us into its record. Scholars in the future may scan our diaries, read our emails, and riffle through our clothes. Do we want them to accept and try to understand our thinking, our worldviews – humanism, atheism, Judeo-Christian, etc. etc. etc. – or do we want them to merely slap the most recent philosophy of the 23rd Century on their interpretation of us? Humbling thought, indeed.
We are losing our respect for the past as we research, write, and teach history through modern worldview lenses, as we bend to the pressure to making history acceptable to 21st Century “sensibilities,” as we apologize rather than seek to understand. This is a battle. Every generation of historians has a choice. If history continues to be conformed, suppressed, and viewed through lenses far different than those accepted when it was first enacted, we will lose the ability to learn anything except a modern agenda. And if we cannot learn from the true triumphs and mistakes of the past where will we be?
The answer chills my heart: blindly educated.