Perspective: Whose History?

Jan 24, 2020

This month, The New York Times reported on divergent history textbooks in California and Texas schools. The same publisher caters to each region’s views: California’s says that rulings on the Second Amendment allowed for gun regulations. The Texas book doesn’t.

Consider the power of historical narratives in Spain. Sixteenth-century Charles V furthered the idea that God wanted a unified Spain. In 1939, Dictator Franco resuscitated this through textbooks, newsreels and other tactics. Following his death in 1975, provinces throughout the nation wrote textbooks in their regional languages. Some Catalonian schoolchildren raised on textbooks championing their region as suffering under centralist oppression grew up to support the ill-fated independence rising of 2017. Each side accuses the other of opportunistic propaganda, where the fight over identity is tied to which historical narrative you internalize.

Many who are against reading fiction don’t mind historical or biographical writing because they say it’s “true.” Imaginative writing doesn’t affirm truth-telling: instead, besides affording instruction and pleasure, poetry and fiction can offer ideals to strive for or hypotheticals for reflection and understanding. Also, the best art exposes ways so-called “true” writings manipulate.

For example, Shakespeare’s historical sources by Holinshed and Hall purported to merely report, but they actually concocted moral tales. The bard’s history plays upheld versions of the past to please the reigning monarchs. But at the same time, Shakespearean ambiguity critiques the status quo, revealing how propaganda can solidify communal identities and stoke partisan actions.

Besides goodwill, training in rhetoric and practice in the arts abets the attentive writing and reading of history.

I'm Bill Gahan and that's my perspective