Getting Past Memorizing Dates for History

by Scott Manning on May 30, 2013

A friend shared this with me, because I am a historian or something.

Calvin and Hobbes Test

In history, there is what happened and then there is how cultures interpreted what happened. The former tends to be straightforward, but the latter is murky.

In terms of our interpretation, we struggle with the availability of information and popular belief. Again, the former is easy to grasp, but the latter is difficult.

However, history should be much more than just memorizing dates. Knowing what happened and when is one thing, but examining how people have remembered that history takes us fascinating new heights.

For example, if we examine the War of 1812, we can determine the United States aggressively started the war, poorly executed it, and was lucky to exit it. However, the people of America were more prone to believe that they somehow “won” the war via a victory at New Orleans after the war was over. The implications of this collectively accepted lie led to many trends in the country including the aggressive pursuit of Manifest Destiny and the election of a president based on populism.

In another example, the Egyptian Sultan Saladin (r. 1174-1193) successfully set back crusaders in the Middle East, yet he remained a relatively obscure figure among Muslims until the German Kaiser visited the region in 1898. While there, he made a pilgrimage to Saladin’s tomb to pay homage to the medieval sultan. By doing so, the Kaiser brought Saladin to the forefront of Islamic memory (See Jonathan Riley-Smith’s The Crusades, Christianity, and Islam). Today, I cannot find a Muslim in my office who is not familiar with Saladin.

Again, all of this was possible because of how people remembered history as opposed to what actually happened in history.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jimmy Dick May 31, 2013 at 9:36 AM

There is a significant difference between memorizing dates and facts versus understanding why events took place in the manner that they did. This is also where you can see a major difference between amateur historians and professional historians at this current juncture in time. Amateur historians tend to be more detail oriented and memorize facts, but often struggle to connect the facts into a cohesive larger picture. They tend to utilize a simple canvas to place the facts on because for them that big picture is really beyond their abilities to explain.

This isn’t an attempt to demean the amateur historians by any means. They have their place in the scheme of things and that is great. It is just that they have little training to work in historical theory. Many do rely on professional historians and welcome their interpretations because the professional historians often use the details that the amateur historians develop in weaving the larger picture and placing it in with even greater pictures.

As a teacher I try to focus on the whys and hows of history. The who, what, when, where information is available via plenty of books. The real story of history for me is talking those W’s and putting them together to form a mosaic that tells a much larger narrative which is rich with the multiple interlocking singular stories that make up history. This is also where the professional historians clash with popular memory.

Popular memory tends to be fuzzy and often is highly erroneous. This is the stuff of legend and folklore. This tends to be rooted in some form of reality, but the actual details often get blurred or altered to suit the needs of the storyteller or audience. We see that with the many myths surrounding the Revolution. The reality has been changed to meet the desires of the audience in many cases.

The Lost Cause myth is another good example where popular memory clashes with reality. I won’t go into that because that can easily be an entire thread or millions of threads on its own. The example of the War of 1812 is probably the perfect example of how popular memory has obscured reality. The US got its butt handed to it. The British could have done pretty much anything it wanted to short of actually conquering the US and placing them back into the Empire. The effort to do so would not have succeeded in the long term. The British met most of their goals and had nothing to gain by continuing a costly war so they ended it. It was only through unintended consequences that the US gained anything at all from that war.

As for Jackson, he won a very easy victory after the war was over. I personally think it was only the fact that Americans needed something to boost morale that the victory was given the significance that it got. Had the British won the battle and taken New Orleans, (something I seriously doubt they would have done) they would have only given it back per the terms of the peace treaty. Yet, no one considers this today.


2 Scott Manning May 31, 2013 at 10:59 AM

Sticking with the War of 1812, I found it fascinating that the British generally had little memory of the war until Johnny Horton published his Battle of New Orleans song. Apparently the song hit the charts and the Brits said, “What’s all this, then.” Yet, Americans have had such a strong memory of the war and that battle. American exceptionalism clashing with British exceptionalism is a thing to behold.


3 Jimmy Dick May 31, 2013 at 2:29 PM

Have you read Barbara Tuchman’s book “The March of Folly” yet? Read the section on the Revolution. The British have a very long history to work with and as such they are able to just sort of speed over or around things they don’t wish to dwell on. The Revolution is an error by Parliament and an overreaction by the Americans.

The War of 1812 is a footnote for them because they rightfully focus on the Napoleonic Wars which were far more important to them. Now, what almost no one knows is that Wellington had been pressured to go to North America and take over the campaigns there. This was prior to the peace. He did agree to go, but events overtook that choice as peace was achieved and then Napoleon’s 100 Days leading to Waterloo.


4 Scott Manning June 1, 2013 at 8:19 PM

I have not read it. Sounds interesting though. I will add it to my list. Right now, I am reading The Debate on the English Revolution by R. C. Richardson, which traces the historiography of the English Civil War. Their arguments over the causes and victims remind me of the historiography of the American Civil War.


5 Jimmy Dick June 2, 2013 at 11:48 AM

I think the English Civil War feeds right into the Revolution. The events created the climate in which Locke and Hobbes wrote their great works and advanced government that was not monarchist in nature. A century later those ideas and others were being formulated into the creation of the American government (actually two types because the Confederation didn’t work very well).

I think this is important because this shows how things happen as part of a process. Historical events didn’t happen just because people wake up one day and decide to do something. They happen over time and as part of a process. Without the English Civil War, the process would not have been in place to create the Revolution. There may not have been one or instead of a government derived from a social contract type there could have been another strong totalitarian state created. That almost happened anyway, but Washington refused and that ended that.

6 Rob May 31, 2013 at 9:39 AM

history has evolved so much over the past century. no more is it a status symbol to know when the normans invaded england. if people think that history is nothing more than dates, then how are historians better than an encyclopedia? … or wikipedia!


7 Jimmy Dick May 31, 2013 at 2:15 PM

I think that’s part of the problem. People don’t seem to value the big picture of history. I belong to a local country historical society and they are all big on detail driven history as it pertains to the local history. Try to connect it with a larger state or national history and they don’t care. They revert to the long held beliefs they’ve had for decades. I think their attention to local stuff is great, but they can’t take the next step in taking what they have available to them and putting it together into a larger narrative. I try and they just look at me like I’m speaking Greek.

You can see that this minimizes the value they place on historians. They seem to want us to be able to help them with the details of local history. I’ve tried to explain how certain national themes influenced what happened here in this small and rural county several times. They don’t want to hear something that is different from what they have been told by the family members based on their perspectives. I point out how the perspectives are valuable for how people remember the past, but also that the perspectives indicate a lack of understanding of what was going on around those people. Again, when you challenge a long held belief you are going to run into a brick wall.


8 Rob June 2, 2013 at 8:55 AM

i never realized localized history was militantly localized. i have read a few histories about single cities in the (American) civil war. if you approach the work already possessing an understanding of the bigger picture, then it is rewarding.


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