History is Not a Competition

“To study history means submitting yourself to chaos, but nevertheless retaining your faith in order and meaning.” Herman Hesse, German writer and poet (1877-1962)

No alt text provided for this image

History is a Mystery

The only class I ever failed in all of my years of learning was an 8th grade History class. I failed because I protested against doing the homework. Even though I passed all of the tests, I wouldn’t spend extra time doing homework to remember a bunch of dates and one-sided stories. You see, my family had taught me Black History in the home. I had books and coloring books with contributions of Black people throughout American History such as Charles Drew, George Washington Carver, Madam CJ Walker, etc. In addition, I learned about the history of the slave trade of which my ancestors were on both sides (I am part Portuguese. Hence the name.). And I learned about pre-American slavery contributions by Africans to global society as well as the conquests of the Moors, pre-British explorers to other lands, etc. (Did you ever wonder where those olive skinned Europeans came from?) In other words, I had a very holistic view of history.

So when our teachers taught history as if the history of Black people was just slavery and the Civil Right Movement, I said something. But, the teachers didn’t want to hear it. So, I decided I would pass the tests so I wouldn’t fail the class but, I wouldn’t do more. However, my teacher exercised his authority to fail me even though I technically had a passing grade because he said that doing homework was part of the class. And as a result, I had to go to summer school.

At first, I was disappointed by this turn of events. That was until I met my summer school history teacher. I wish I could remember her name because she was one of the best teachers of anything I had in my life. She was an older White lady mostly teaching Black kids in summer school–what I expected to be the same version of history that we were taught in regular school–one where us Black kids felt the shame of being from an enslaved caste and the all of the White people were heroes no matter what they did. But instead, she taught history as a human narrative with complicated characters making complex decision in contexts that are constantly being reshaped. She didn’t try to justify the slave trade or make it simply an economic decision. She made it clear that people knew it was wrong and that was why they put so much effort into justifying it. But she also tied it to the tendency of humans to do this as a general rule–make self-serving decisions and then come up with justifications for those decisions.

The first time I ever played the Telephone Game was in her class. She demonstrated that if we couldn’t keep track of a story in our one class, there’s a reasonable chance that historians got some things wrong due to receiving incomplete information. Couple that with the fact that humans usually tell stories that paint themselves in the best possible light and that’s why it’s important to have as many “witnesses” as possible just as you would expect to have in any investigation. And that’s when I connected the dots that history is a mystery. In her class, she did what I think any good teacher should do, she taught us how to learn the subject matter. Ever since taking her class, I have consistently applied her methodology to everything that I’ve wanted to learn from languages to religion. Now I am sharing some of what she taught me with you.

No One Wins History

If you’ve ever been in a relationship of any substance, then you have probably experienced an argument or two where you and the other person got very heated about your differing perspectives on how an event in time was experienced. You are certain that you are right. The other person is equally certain that they are right. And so, you get into a cycle of one-upsmanship each trying to prove to the other that you have the best information. Because in a society that sees so many engagements as a competition, to admit that you might not have the most complete picture is seen as losing. And we all know, that the quote incorrectly attributed to Winston Churchill is correct, “History is written by the victors.”

Now, we see this same human tendency playing out in our society at large. With the advent of the internet, social media, and the encouragement of people to tell their stories and to be their truer authentic and vulnerable selves, we are starting to hear other sides of the stories that for so long, people kept under wraps. And for some, it feels like history is being unwritten. While for others it feels like history is being unleashed. These are both authentic but very subjective experiences. Unfortunately, we humans are notorious for overestimating our objective capacities. And as a result, many people have a hard time not looking at different information about the same event from a different perspective as an existential threat to their psyche and identity.

In my opinion, this tendency is closely related to the Dunning-Kruger effect, which according to Encyclopedia Britannica is describe in psychology as, “a cognitive bias whereby people with limited knowledge or competence in a given intellectual or social domain greatly overestimate their own knowledge or competence in that domain relative to objective criteria or to the performance of their peers or of people in general.”

When it comes down to it, most people just hate being wrong about anything. And this is a real problem of seeing almost everything as a competition. It is relationally toxic and runs counter to the innovative capacities we need to solve some of the problems particular to people who–as the old adage goes–because they don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it.

A Brief History of History

In the video below, which is a clip extracted from a larger presentation on Black History in Technology, I talk to the participants about the concept of developing historical literacy. In other words, how to read history. Now many of us want to believe that we view history objectively. “Just the facts.” But, it is rare that people actually do that. To be historically objective, is relatively scientific. History from an objective perspective is simply: 

  • Who?
  • What?
  • When?
  • Where?
  • Why?
  • How?

One with this outlook would seek out the best and most complete information from as many sources as possible and would actually welcome contradictory perspectives if they were firmly established. And, there would be no sense of loss or gain at receiving more complete information aside from an appreciation of having greater accuracy in order to make better decisions. It is in this sense that history would be approached scientifically.

“What is history but a fable agreed upon?” Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle, often misattributed to Napoleon Bonaparte

The George Washington and the Cherry Tree Effect

However, let’s face it. Most of us don’t approach history objectively. History is experienced subjectively. Because as my teacher said, we tell stories in a self serving way. For many people, the version of history they appreciate the most is the version that makes them feel like they have some sense of control over their destiny. And they want their historical figures as benevolent as possible as if proximity to them somehow blesses their lives. A good example is the myth of George Washington and the Cherry tree, admittedly invented by Mason Locke Weems. The myth persists in large part because it establishes Washington as a super human figure of peculiar honesty. Once this is established as a child, any decision thereafter becomes justifiable. And for those who consider themselves Washington adjacent, what feels true about him somehow feels transferred to them. History from a subjective perspective, is about:

  • What can we learn from history?
  • What does history say about me/my group?
  • How does history inform my/my group’s future?
  • Who is my authority on history?
  • What is my relationship to that authority?

In other words, we take history PERSONALLY!

So Who Owns History?

This shouldn’t even be a question that anyone asks if we were truly looking at history objectively. And it wouldn’t be if we didn’t take history so personally. But, it is a valid question because there are people who do feel like they own history for all of the subjective lines of reasoning I mentioned above. And if we can’t admit that to ourselves, we will continue to fight over who has it right, which is itself ALL WRONG. Another alternative is to stop talking about history altogether, which unfortunately is the route that some people are taking. It is the equivalent of a child who says, “If I can’t win the game, I don’t want anyone to play.”

History is Not a Competition

Or, we could accept the fact that history is not a competition and stop teaching it that way. Even in the field of academia, there is no longer general agreement on where history falls as an area of study. There are many who say it falls under the humanities while others believe history is a social science. This matters because, as you might notice from the image below, fields of study that fall under the humanities have elements that are largely open to interpretation whereas social sciences tend to be more fact based or less likely to be taken subjectively.

No alt text provided for this image

So what do we do? There’s no way to force folks to look at history in only one way. The best thing that we can hope for relationally is to develop our capacity to witness how we are perceiving the information and use it to enhance how we engage others and the world.

Tips for an Objective Approach to American History

From Barry Johnson, author of the book And… as well as founder of Polarity Partnerships.

1. Are the sources of this history course both white and people of color?

2. Is the information the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?

3. Is there time allowed to explore these discrepancies and to understand what has been done throughout our history to bring our practices closer to our ideals?

4. Is there time allowed to explore what still needs to be done to bring our present practices closer to the ideals on which we were founded?

“I Am A Citizen of A Country That Does Not Yet Exist” – Dr. Vincent Harding

In a conversation I had with a state politician where I was criticizing the lack of cooperation between the two major parties, I learned something very valuable. It was that it is incumbent upon every American to see themselves as co-founders of this nation. While he admitted the gridlock that often happens, he told me that a large part of the problem is that the constituents on either side don’t like seeing their representatives work together. He said, “We are a representative government. And as politicians, we represent what the people tell us they want by their actions or inactions.” That played a large part in me wanting to work with people to recognize their power to be co-founders of a nation that is still in the process of becoming.

Unfortunately, the America that can be, won’t be until we start learning from our past in order to create a better future. And that will take work and a lot of practice.

Practice For What You’re Reaching For

We cannot transform what we cannot talk about. And in my experience, it seems that just as many of us are overconfident about our ability to look at history objectively, many of us equally overestimate our conversational abilities when it comes to speaking with people with varying views on issues that we might care about. But rather than admit that we are unpracticed in this skill set, many of us either avoid the opportunities to practice or we tell ourselves that we would be perfectly capable of engaging in conversations across differences if only the “other side” were more reasonable.

To shift this tendency in our culture, thousands of American from all walks of life and from about 500 plus different organizations so far have come together to support, The National Week of Conversation (April 17-23), one of the many efforts across the country designed to empower every day people in their every day lives to cultivate the co-founder skills we need to help bring about that more perfect union that has inspired so many around the world. We’re doing this because we realize that no matter how divided we may have been historically, the only future that makes sense is one where we work together. We are the shapers of history for future generations. How do you hope they look back on us? As those limited by a competitive spirit or as those enlightened by a cooperative one?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s