Who Decides What Constitutes History?

I love studying historical events and persons but I never do so without thinking of two assumptions about history.  The first assumption is that history is stale and has no relevance for us today.  The second assumption is that history is written by the winners.

The second assumption is true. Only literate individuals who survive conflict, disease, and natural catastrophes can write about their experiences. That’s why we know more about the effects of the volcanic eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. that buried Pompeii and Herculaneum than we do about the Krakatoa eruption in 1883 A.D. that wiped out entire provinces on the islands of Java and Sumatra.

The Scythians are still viewed as blood-thirsty murderers because we met them through their Greek enemies. Greek sources claimed Scythian women cut off one breast so that they could more easily wield a bow and arrows in combat.  After Scythian burial sites were found, the archaeological record proved that they were the finest goldsmiths in the world.  But the Scythians didn’t leave a written account of their culture so we’re stuck with the Greek version.

The fact that history is written by the winners underpins the first assumption that history is stale and irrelevant. Most history lessons consist of a catalogue of the achievements of men. That is not surprising since virtually every culture in the world is or was patriarchal.

America’s culture wars arise from the demands of women and minorities to be given equal historical value. That means having their stories included in the historical record.  As the search for non-white-male achievers picks up steam, each addition is quickly countered with a values test.  Is any woman painter as good as Michelangelo?  Why is Edmund Burke’s “Reflections on the Revolution in France” required reading in college but not Mary Wollstonecraft’s response?  Where would agribusiness be today without the research of George Washington Carver?

The culture wars will grind on and we will continue to debate what is worthy of being counted as part of our history.  That makes history exciting because we are always learning something new from the archaeological and historical records.  Eventually, the category of winners will expand to include people and events that were previously ignored.


About Norma Shirk

My company, Corporate Compliance Risk Advisor, helps employers (with up to 50 employees) to create human resources policies and employee benefit programs that are appropriate to the employer’s size and budget. The goal is to help small companies grow by creating the necessary back office administrative structure while avoiding the dead weight of a bureaucracy.  To read my musings on the wacky world of human resources, see the HR Compliance Jungle (www.hrcompliancejungle.com) which alternates on Wednesday mornings with my new history blog, History By Norma, (available at http://www.normashirk.com). To read my musings on a variety of topics, see my posts on Her Savvy (www.hersavvy.com).

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