About a month ago, I saw a number of people in my news feed sharing an article called “Horizontal History” from the website Wait But Why. I wasn’t familiar with the site before, but it seemed interesting, so I saved it in my Instapaper queue. I finally got around to reading it this week, and it’s worth a read. Fair warning: the language is a bit coarse at times, but the ideas are nevertheless worth considering. I was particularly struck by the following passage.
The reason history is so hard is that it’s so soft. To truly, fully understand a time period, an event, a movement, or an important historical figure, you’d have to be there, and many times over. You’d have to be in the homes of the public living at the time to hear what they’re saying; you’d have to be a fly on the wall in dozens of secret, closed-door meetings and conversations; you’d need to be inside the minds of the key players to know their innermost thoughts and motivations. Even then, you’d be lacking context. To really have the complete truth, you’d need background—the cultural nuances and national psyches of the time, the way each of the key players was raised during childhood and the subtle social dynamics between those players, the impact of what was going on in other parts of the world, and an equally-thorough understanding of the many past centuries that all of these things grew out of.
That’s a pretty good explanation of why we must teach students to think historically. It also explains why history, as it should be taught, is far more complex than names and dates. Like Whitman, real history is large. It contains multitudes.