When History Teaches Us The Wrong Lesson

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Ok, not so much us as me. Its already been said that I’m a fan of history. I study it, I research as a hobby, and I generally enjoy what it has to offer. We stand to learn a lot from history. But what happens when history turns out to be a poor tutor? What happens when history’s lessons don’t apply?

In college I was fortunate enough to study under a very peculiar woman named Dr. Hooper. Dr. Hooper wore earrings that didn’t match, spoke only at maximum volume, lorded over the hardest class I’ve ever had to take, and was convinced that everyone should know all details concerning her wiry little rat dogs, Persephone and Hades. She was also just a touch cynical. She often regaled her students with stories regarding her relationship with her husband, the demise of said relationship, and her subsequent divorce. Stemming from this story of misery and woe, she publicly damned all manner of romantic relationship. We history majors quickly learned that if a dating couple took her class together, it was best to sit far apart. Her cynicism spread past affairs of the heart, even bleeding into her  subject of choice, and in the grossest of ironic turns, her one true love, history.

I mentioned that Dr. Hooper “lorded over” the hardest class I’ve ever had to take. It was Historiography and was not for the faint of heart. I say “lorded over” because a class that covered the breadth and span of historiography for college juniors could not simply be “taught.” On our first day, Dr. Hooper informed us that in her twenty plus years of tenure, teaching Historiography most of that time, she had only ever awarded one A. That same student proceeded to have a nervous breakdown shortly thereafter. So no pressure.

Among the required reading for Dr. Hooper’s Historiography was a book called Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. It was a small, simple read in comparison to most college texts. Add to that an inherent and witty cynicism that obviously attracted my professor to it, it turned out to be a welcome break from the dry, lifeless texts typically assigned the lowly college student. It was also particularly eye-opening for it actually contained a list and counter-argument for some of the most commonly mis-taught thematic lessons in history. These were things that I had been taught, events and reasons for the greater part of my version of the historical timeline. Now in one book, for one class, I had to undo a large amount of erroneous memorization.

The book didn’t attempt to claim that Columbus did not sail the ocean blue in 1492, but rather contended that the reasons often taught for this poetic journey weren’t often covered correctly. The Declaration of Independence really was signed in 1776, but not exactly to the whoops and hollers of approval. A good part of the country, the greater part perhaps, wanted no part of it. For most, this is inconsequential. For a history major, it was huge. History was supposed to be the infallible, but it taught me the wrong lesson.

Over time I learned that history is quite fallible, its facts and course changing with each new discovery. But at the time, it was quite jarring. It seems God has seen fit to remind me of this. This time not in regards to academics, but another of Dr. Hooper’s topics, relationships.

History has thus far shown me the ugly side of relationships, at least the kind with men. I know about cheating and betrayal and distrust. I’m intimately familiar with being let down and climbing out of holes, sometimes those that I dug and sometimes those that someone else dug for me. Its normal to have to pick through the lies designed to earn trust to glean a bit of useful information.That has become the foundation for me. You start with those and work upwards to overcome. That’s how it works.

But what if history has taught me the wrong lesson? What if it is possible to start out differently? It may be time for a new lesson. Maybe.

**And for the record, I got a B in Dr. Hooper’s Historiography. I worked my happy little butt off for it, too.

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3 responses »

    • I think you missed the point of the post. But yes, many museums struggle with the line between exciting presentation and distortion of fact. I’m proud of my museum for paying very close attention to putting out good science rather than just pretty stuff. Thanks for the random chime of the day.

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