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How ever-changing history shapes us

April 8, 2011
By Jim Whipple

As I remember or is it as I see it?

They are two distinctive things. I remember the past with warm memories, that part of my past. Some of it was a very rocky road which, in time, I will touch on.

With the death of Frank Buckles, who was the last living American soldier of World War I, I got to thinking about the history that each of us has lived throughout our lives.

In my case, I can remember as a 14-year-old reading about the passing of the last Union soldier. He was Albert Woolson of Minnesota, a Union drummer boy who died in 1956.

History is everything that happened from the day before and from there to our past. Each time we read a newspaper, we are reading the first accounts of what later might be found in history books.

I like looking at history books in high schools today to see how historians interpret the events that I lived through, such as the Vietnam War.

One thing I have noticed is that historians can put their spin on the topic they are writing about. Take President Richard Nixon for example - if you look at presidential histories, you will notice that many bring out the Watergate scandal that caused President Nixon to resign. Others talk about his diplomacy and that the Watergate scandal was made more of a scandal by his political enemies.

Richard Jewell, a professor at the University of Minnesota, puts it this way.

"The most important thing we can remember about this branch of study is that for every 10 observers of an historical event, there will be 10 different versions of what actually happened. This means that historians - those who write about history - have a number of different ways of deciding what is important to write about, and what is not."

For some students, the word "history" conjures up images of thick textbooks, long lectures and even longer nights spent memorizing morsels of historical knowledge - dates, places and the names of those involved.

For others, history is a fascinating puzzle with both personal and cultural significance.

The old adage, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," is a truism that some say you can see today. The more we know about the past, the better we can understand how societies have evolved to their present state, why people face certain problems and how successfully others have addressed those problems.

Who, what, where, when and why in history are answered by historians who offer us today a more or less educated guess about the past. The guesses are based on interpretations of facts that have been researched and other information that has trickled down to use through the ages.

Finally, history is ever-changing.

Solid facts about history have started to shift. When I went to school one of the first history lessons that I learned was that Christopher Columbus discovered the New World. Well, almost. It took a while before the Spaniards realized he'd landed on an island off the coast of the New World. It took even longer for historians to figure out that the Vikings crossed the Atlantic long before Columbus.

The past informs our lives, ideas and expectations, or the thing we call history is an important part of our lives whether we study it in school or just read the newspapers, or in the modern age listen to the news on our iPods or watch it on TV.

 
 
 

 

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