Friday, October 8, 2010

Pondering History

I’m steeped in history right now. I’m reading Bill Bryson’s new book "At Home" which is an exploration of the history of homes. He states that he endeavored to "write a history of the world without leaving home." I’m also listening to Ken Follett’s "World Without End", which is a work of historical fiction set in the
1400s in England. While I’m only about three chapters into "At Home", these two books have dovetailed in an interesting way – Bryson details the evolution of the house, and some of the historical facts are specifically about the time in which "World Without End" is set.

Last night, as I was reading in my usual chair, I started thinking about history, and how it has been captured and reported throughout the years. Much of what we know about what happened in the world prior to the advent of the printed word is speculative at best. Stories are told from a specific point of view, and detail one person’s or one community’s experience. But even after the introduction of the printing press, history is generally still reported from a skewed point of view.
There are some events, the Holocaust, for example, that I believe are reported in a way that is pretty true and accurate. But smaller, less far-reaching events, are much more subject to individual interpretation and therefore it is much harder to determine the truth between the opinions expressed.

For example, if I were to write a history of what has happened with my company in the past year, I’d write about the mergers and having to recomplete for the account I work on (still undetermined at the moment, by the way), but mostly it would be a positive history. The mergers haven’t really affected me, I like my work and the people with whom I do it, I feel that I get paid fairly for my efforts and I have a pretty good balance of home versus work. Others who would write a history of the same company for the same time period might say something completely different. There are those who lost their jobs, those who may not like the new upper management for whatever reason, those who may be completely overworked due to unfilled positions in their departments, those who haven’t gotten a raise recently, and those who just don’t like what they do or who they do it with. Which history is true, from a JWT Atlanta perspective? Both accounts would be honest, presumably, but which would stand the test of time and in the future be considered the “definitive” history of JWT Atlanta during 2010?

The history of the United States, as taught to me and to my children, is full of triumphant victories, hard-working people and God-ordained rights. But as we all know, the history of the United States is also filled with people taking advantage of others, stealing land, murder in the name of God and Country and terrible injustice. The history of all other countries is probably the same, as is the history of the Church. I recognize that there are always at least two sides to every story, but who decides what makes the cut when it comes to reporting the historical “facts” of a time or place?

My sense is that it’s generally the most powerful people who decide; those who might be the ones with the most to lose if the negative truths come out. Those who are less powerful or ambitious are also those less likely to fight to get their side of the story told. Access to media and to an influential audience, the ability to articulate an opinion in a clear manner and the time and money to do so are all important to getting a story out, and the majority of people are probably lacking in at least one of these things, if not all of them. So we plod along, accepting what we deem to be the inevitable one-sided histories of our lives and times.

My children both had the opportunity to do a family history project in elementary school. This allowed them to explore the histories of their grandparents and parents, aunts and uncles and cousins, and to find similarities between themselves and those who went before. It was an opportunity for me to learn these things too, and it was the one project that I really enjoyed helping my children with. What a gift it would be if something like this were a regular part of school curriculum for every child. How much more empowered would our children be if they had the opportunity to talk to the patriarchs and matriarchs of their families? To learn the struggles and triumphs of regular life and to see that each age has its own interesting set of challenges and innovative solutions. Combine these individual histories with what they learn in school, and all of a sudden history is something that affects them in a real way. A great-grandparent who wasn’t allowed to sit at the diner counter, or in the front of the bus, puts the civil rights struggle in a completely different context for the young black child who wonders why racism still exists, and it hopefully gives him a sense of the hard work his ancestors did to make the world better for him. The young girl whose grandfather fled from a civil-war torn country can better understand the individual hardships the citizens endured to make a better life for their families. Spend some time telling your children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews your own personal histories so that when they learn the “official” history of the country or the world, they have some context to make it personal and true.

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