Thursday, December 18, 2014

History Is About People, Not "isms"

Had he and I but met
By some old ancient inn
We should have set us down to wet 
Right many a nipperkin
But ranged as infantry
And staring face to face
I shot at him as he at me
And killed him in his place
--Thomas Hardy, "The Man He Killed"


With the holiday season upon us, we tend to look for the better angles of our nature. Personally, I agree with Shaara's statement in his great novel that man is a killer angel, but I digress. I remember reading the above Thomas Hardy poem when I was a senior in high school. It has stuck with me ever since. For some reason, I always liked to memorize bits and pieces of poetry even though I really am not a big fan of verse. (But I can quote Kipling like it is going out of style, which I think it has!) This December we are also celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the Christmas Truce during the Great War when British and German soldiers, on their own, held an impromptu Christmas ceasefire. You can see a really good commercial that incorporates that theme here.

One of the great tragedies of the Civil War and the Great War is that for the soldiers on the front line doing the fighting, they differed little from their counterparts on the other side. During the Civil War, most Confederate soldiers were subsistence farmers who did not own slaves. So too were many of the Northern soldiers. They may have spoke with different accents, but they spoke the same language, worshiped the same God, and had the same shared national heritage. Together their grandfathers had driven out the Redcoats during the Revolution and had a foreign invader dared set foot on our soil, Johnny Reb and Billy Yank would have been fighting on the same side. (Not, of course, if it had happened during the War as the South wanted British intervention.) Americans killed Americans wholesale for years. That is difficult for us to wrap out minds around today.

Odds are you would actually be standing in the unemployment line.
Or be an adjunct professor, like me. The day laborers of the academic world.

Talk to an academic historian today and chances are they will drop an "ism" into the conversation. Racism, sexism, genderism, classism, ass-hatism, etc. You get the idea. It is almost like our nation's graduate programs in history have lost sight of the fact that in order to study history you have to, you know, study people. This is why so many students find history to be a dull boring subject. I wouldn't want to sit through a class where we spent a semester talking about sexism. I'd rather you tell me the stories of the suffragettes who were sent to prison and force fed while on a hunger strike in an attempt to get women the right to vote. That is far more interesting to students that discussions of ideals. The public wants to know the story. After all, the second half of the word history is "story". It is not "ism". That is good because histism is hard to say.

I am not a real historian, though I do have a graduate degree in History. Instead, I am a Half A$$ Historian. This is one of the reasons why. Historians often ascribe grand motivations to characters in the past. While certainly that might be the case on occasion, they seem to think that human beings 100 or 200 years ago were motivated by grand ideas. I rather doubt that is true. Humans are emotional creatures and we often act based on them. I do not think that was any different in 1814 than it is in 2014. The average person in the past had the same worries that the average person of today does (adjusted for differences in technology and lifestyle, of course). Just as people today pay more attention to American Idol than they do international geopolitics, the same can be said for the masses in bygone eras. They were too busy trying to survive. I don't know why historians often fall into this trap. You see it most often when they write about all of the ideals that soldiers in past wars fought for. While that may have prompted them to enlist, people by and large do not risk their lives for words. They risk them for their comrades. Just as the narrator in Thomas Hardy's poem. 

In all the history and English courses I took in pursuit of my BA and MA, I only had three professors who were veterans. Two of them were History Professors but neither were American veterans. One was British and the other German. I was able to take an excellent course on Literature of the First and Second World Wars from a professor who was an Annapolis graduate who served in Vietnam, but he was the only American veteran that I ever took a class from. Many history professors come from middle class and upper middle class backgrounds. They are fortunate, by circumstances of birth, that they have not been exposed to life or death situations on a regular basis. They spent their whole lives in school, either as students or as teachers. This disconnect with the real world means that they cannot accurately understand or describe what working class people in past eras thought or felt because they have no frame of reference other than their own experiences inside the Ivory Towers of academia. I by no means am saying that this applies to every history professor because it does not. And with our more recent conflicts, we are seeing more veterans going to graduate school and getting degrees and teaching positions. This is a good thing. When I was in school in the late 90s, most of our professors received their PhDs in the early 1970s. Makes you wonder if they were truly motivated by the love of history or the need to stay in school and thus escape the draft. (And yes, we had some at my college who boasted of the ways they avoided Uncle Sam's Dragnet). 

So when we study those who lived before us, we need to stop thinking that they were like ants, pushed around by events and start understanding that they shaped the world they lived in too. Just as we do today. Unfortunately, they were often manipulated by political leaders or by social forces, often leading to conflict where the two sides had little real idea of what they were fighting for. This, my friends, is the tragedy of history.

Yes, quaint and curious war is
Where you shoot a fellow down
You'd treat if met where any bar is
Or help to half a crown

My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Half A$$ Historian who promises to abide by the rule that history is about people, not "isms". 

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