Or, as I tell my students, there is (upper-case) “History” (the discipline and the practice and the stories) and there is (lower-case) “history” (all the stuff that has happened in the past). One of the things I am glad many of my students pick up on is that what they’re told in textbooks (and the History Channel and Wikipedia) is just one (highly digested and extremely coherent) version—one story told by one author in one time and place—and that there are many other ways to see the events, trends, and people of the past.
That’s an important part of using History as a means of teaching critical thinking: getting students to be aware of and weigh differing interpretations of the past: ‘were the Germans responsible for the start of WWI or was it the Serbs?,’ ‘was the American War of Independence about democracy or a contest between elites for which group should rule the colonies?’ We need to be aware of potential biases (sometimes explicit and plausible, sometimes not) or novel insights in interpretation. Being aware of that historians choose and how historians choose which kind of story to tell about the past is an essential part of Cronon’s point.
There is another layer to the issue of history as stories; and that is the question of the very use of narratives or stories. Humans love stories. Almost all of us love hearing stories (and some of us like telling them, too). Whether they claim to be factual or clearly dispense with any claim to the “truth,” we can get easily wrapped up in the telling of tales. Part of this is driven by emotional satisfaction from heroic epics, romances, and the resolution of tension.
But a bigger part comes from the comfort of coherence, from the psychological security of feeling able to understand a situation and taking that comfort and applying it to my own life. If the world makes sense (i.e., is coherent) then perhaps I have a better shot at controlling it or at least I will feel less afraid because there are fewer unknowns/surprises. If “History” has “lessons,” then perhaps I can learn them and apply them and have some control over my future. That’s the theory, in any case.
If I have a reliable theory of the origins of anti-Semitism, perhaps I can take steps to prevent its recurrence or deal with its effects. Love stories and hero’s quests (even if fictional) provide more positive role models, but to the same effect. A story that makes sense encourages me to believe that the world is subject to understanding and (to some degree) control; even if, in fact, much/most/all is random and contingent.
This practice may be deeply based in human cognitive evolution and worked well enough when proto-humans were running around East Africa. Now, however, the world is much more complex and driven by the workings of human minds (not just animal behavioral patterns). It’s no wonder that modern historical analysis developed about the time of the industrial revolution as the pace of change and complexity in human societies began to skyrocket. We needed tools to try to make sense of this world and History (the practice) promised to explain change and subject history (the past) to order and usefulness.
History also depends on claims of rational (i.e. legible/understandable) human behavior. But, as we all know from our own lives and trying to understand our own friends, families, colleagues, etc. this is a dicey game. It usually ends up being about me projecting my own idea patterns on others. Why did Truman order the dropping of nuclear weapons on Japan in August, 1945? Did this “cause” Stalin to react in certain ways, leading to the “Cold War?” Many theories/factors have been advanced, most of which are quite plausible. But how to weigh and sort them? Without understanding Truman’s psyche (or Stalin’s), it’s a mug’s game. And, yet, we Historians draw from whichever version we prefer to create all sorts of stories about post-war international relations and geopolitics.
Even without this logical gap in our ability to analyze human behavior, we Historians face two other hurdles: the past-ness of historical behavior (how can we really imagine what people from another culture thought?) and recent neuro-science claims that human consciousness is unknowable. It’s no surprise that some have argued that History (at least the part that tells stories filled with causation and explanation, including pretty much all “popular” history) is, in Henry Ford’s words, “bunk.”
It will come as no surprise to those who have read the initial entries in the blog that I have some sympathy for this view. What I may take as the “lessons” of history are usually projections of my own feelings and ideas. Now, as a card-carrying Historian (AHA member #8429936), I still think there is value and use in studying the past; just not as much as many of my colleagues. How I choose to order the events of the past, how I connect a string of individual’s decisions over time, how I “understand” history—all are great tools for me to see myself.
And, while I’m working on that, I still like getting wrapped up in a good story.