American Elephants

History. by The Elephant's Child

I want to talk a little about history. Daniel Boorstin in his book Hidden History, clarifies things for us. Historians learn about the past through what he calls “the bias of survival”. His first example is his search, in an effort to better understand religion in colonial New England, for a copy of The New England Primer. It first appeared in 1690, and was the basic vehicle of religious instruction as well as the main text of compulsory education in Massachusetts. It was the best selling New England schoolbook, and sold some 3 million copies. Mr. Boorstin went in search of an original copy, but couldn’t find one. He found many volumes of Puritan theology and sermons in pristine condition in rare-book rooms of university libraries, often with uncut pages.

He also calls this “the law of the survival of the unread.” That which is heavily used in daily life is not apt to survive, and we are left with things that were valued, but unused. This applies to things as well as to reading material. That which is “collected and protected” survives, that which is used daily does not. Historians at Colonial Williamsburg feel that they originally had too much of a bias towards the protected, and may have lost much of the reality of everyday life.

What goes in government files survives, but the records of informal groups do not. Objects that have a high intrinsic value survive. The “academically classifiable and the dignified” survive. The history of “materials surrounding controversies” survives. The temperance movement has left a vast literature, but we know little about what and how much earlier Americans drank.

Boorstin also mentions the “survival of the self-serving: the psychopathology of diarists and letter writers”. The troubled may write volumes about their angst, while happy people are too busy to write at all. There is a bias towards success, a “survival of the victorious point of view”.

History may change suddenly, with new access, new discoveries, as for example, the opening of the Soviet archives. A new ability to interview participants on both sides has changed the history of the Vietnam War. Is the history of today changing as people communicate by telephone and e-mail instead of letters? Is our history to be told by today’s movies and newspapers? Most of us don’t think that is reality.

We look at the happenings of the past with today’s eyes. How absurd to think that the people of today should apologize for things that happened in the distant past. The past is. It happened. Nothing that we think, say or do will change the past. We may learn more about what happened, but what did happen is fixed and unchangeable.

We need, however, to learn as much about the past as we can. Knowing about the past helps us to do the right thing in the present, and a lack of knowledge may lead us to foolish mistakes.

What we learn about the past may change our ideas of what is right or wrong in the present, but our ideas about what is right or wrong about what was done in the past are irrelevant. Any effect that we have on the future is out of our control. We are responsible only for ourselves in this brief moment of time that is ours.

We cannot predict the future. Time is not a smooth highway stretching out into tomorrow. It’s more like a river with boulders and rapids, eddies, and side streams adding to the flow as it rushes on.

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: