I’m reminded of one of my old teachers today, who once told us to close our notebooks, and stop taking notes. “Look,” he said, “your understanding of the past is going to be judged on the basis of this conception of history, the one we’re studying now, from this textbook. But this is a story, made of a collection of facts. It’s not the only story that can be constructed of these facts, and if you exchanged some facts for some other facts, you’d wind up telling a very different story.” And then he told us some stories, about archaeological digs that found things that aren’t supposed to exist, and events that really happened that make no sense, and even from time to time showed us pictures of things we hadn’t imagined could exist in any world, much less ours.
The world is a lot stranger than we give it credit for, and our own human history is proof of that.
Today’s American history class began with a student pondering, “did they really play organ music while the lions killed and ate the Christians? The Romans, I mean? Didn’t they play organ music or something?”
And the answer is yes. Yes they did. They played happy music, the kind of music they play at the circus when the police clown chases the robber clown and all sorts of silly things happen. They played music like that because it was supposed to be funny — poor, helpless criminals who’d done bad things to society, running away from implacable and teethful wild animals. All kinds of things could go wrong to the humans, and the crowd laughed, the way we laugh at slapstick Bugs Bunny or Tom and Jerry cartoons or the Three Stooges, or my personal favorite, the Coyote chasing Road Runner.
And then the Christians seized narrative control. They got authorship rights, and changed the nature of the story. A bunch of Christian martyrs – a word that simply means ‘witnesses’ — got thrown into the arena, and instead of pleading for their lives, or running away even though there was nowhere to run — they sang hymns and prayed prayers while the lions ate them alive.
The audience stirred in their seats. They began to wake up from the grandeur that was Greece, and the glory that was Rome. These were people, out there on the sands. Not just anybody, but people, real live people. Not slaves, but people who had been Roman citizens, practically flinging their bodies at the lions to be eaten, so they could join their Christ in heaven.
People converted to Christianity in droves. This was the real deal, after all — their God, their son of God, reasoned the pagan Romans, were completely unafraid of death, which was something that Apollo and Aphrodite and even Zeus had not been able to instill in pagans. Christianity offered genuine hope to people, in a darksome and loathsome time. A world without death and fear. Plus, watching people – real people – get ripped apart by lions to clown music was a bit much.
I tossed my textbook on the floor. I called it a lie, based on a collection of true facts. I said lots of things had been left out — but things always got left out — in fact most everything always gets left out. I argued more vehemently than I usually do. I gave examples. Some were raunchy and disgusting to the kids, and also “perfectly normal” for other times and places. I probably grossed out a half-dozen girls.
It remains true.
History is not real. It’s only the sanitized and selective narrative of a highly-suspect collection of facts that we’re currently willing to tell ourselves are important. All kinds of things get left out, ignored, or just displaced. Sooner or later, we have to remind kids of that — that their entire history class is presented as a single narrative, but it’s not. Not really.
Update: I ran into a parent in the hallway who mentioned Big History, and suggested that it might be a better sixth or seventh grade offering than what we have now. It’s not a bad idea. But it’s still important to understand that it’s a false narrative masquerading within a costume of true facts, and that this is true of every history out there. It’s always just a collection of facts that happen to grab our attention and mindset at a given time, as significant.