You Can’t Have a One to One Mapping of American History

Copy of the 1602 map created by Matteo Ricci


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As some of you may know, my academic training is not in journalism, but Russian and Modern European history. I also have an academic interest in cultural theory and method, and have taught Adorno, Benjamin, and Habermas – theorists directly and indirectly attached to the Frankfurt School – at the college level. I’ve actually translated Benjamin from the German. 

I know, as the columnist David Collins once wrote, some time before our launch, it’s a funny sort of pointy-headed profession for someone to start a newspaper.

But I suppose every so often it comes in handy when the public debate turns to matters of teaching or history or critical theory.

From reading the newspapers today, you’d almost think that the so-called “cultural turn” in the 1970s, that spawned self-described radical ideas like critical race theory or intersectionality were critiques from the left of the right, but you’d be mistaken.

In fact, at their heart, these are critiques by the left of the left.

Ironically, if you want to understand what was driving a lot of this debate, you only have to look at the initial reaction of then-candidate Bernie Sanders to the emergence of “Black Lives Matter.” Sanders responded, and eventually retracted, “All Lives Matter.” I’m not sure whether he originated the phrase — later taken up by many Republicans — but he beat most people to it.

Why? Because critical race theory and intersectionality were ideas that originated as critiques of the old left and New Left which continued to embrace the primacy of economics, and economic solutions, over identity. For many feminists and Black scholars, this traditional thinking on the left – like Bernie — was old, middle-class, male and white.

I’m not actually sure whether critics on the right disagree.

But in academics, these fights, which were still really quite bitter when I began graduate school, are now a bit old hat — provocative and worthwhile, but at this point already thirty or forty years old. I’ll explain sometime, but our motto “big questions in small places” actually comes out of this debate.

What’s missing in the current public conversation is that these ideas need to be understood as part of rich academic conversation.  Let me explain, and perhaps it will also help us with the current conversation we’re having about curriculum and Lyme-Old Lyme Schools.

Some years ago — on one of those sites that allow curious members of the public to ask questions about anything — someone (lost to the aether) asked me, “Do historians depict history accurately?” It’s a common sort of question that you get from the public when you’re a historian.

And my reply basically turned the question around…

What exactly is an accurate depiction of history? Is an accurate history one that leaves nothing out?

For the sake of argument, let me ask you, what is an accurate map? Is it a map that leaves nothing out? That would require a one to one scale. Is a topographical map more or less accurate than a demographic map or a map of national boundaries?

You see, historians, like cartographers, have to gather and sort information, decide what’s relevant and what’s not. And just as there is no one single accurate map, there is no one single history. Rather if you want the best mapping of an area you will collect a dozen maps. It’s the same with history. If you want the best, most accurate history, you have to read many historians’ works. Historians are not lone wolves, they are engaged in conversations and arguments with other historians and sociologists and anthropologists.

And rather than topography, some historians focus on women, others on military, others on peasants or on elites. Some of us focus on very, very short stretches of time, others on very very small geographies.

My own specialty is early 20th-century memory — but how the heck could I write an accurate history of memory?!! The answer is that it was really, really hard.

It’s hard also to write histories that include illiterate populations, because they can’t themselves write things down. And in fact, average everyday people were barely mentioned in most histories prior to the 1960s. Instead, the focus was on intellectuals and elites – history was kind of like a map New York, which only includes Manhattan, and even then, only the fancier blocks.

So, how does your average public high school classroom in America deal with this? You tell me. They tack up a Mercator projection. 

Biased? To borrow the current vernacular… Biased AF. It’s a projection that makes Africa look tiny, and the UK the center of the world. The earth is a roughly a sphere. There’s no particular reason why the map doesn’t center on China, or Antarctica. There are other, perhaps better, projections, but every map – like every depiction of the past – has a point of view, a bias if you like. Teaching an accurate history, or “just the facts” is an impossibility.  We make choices.

The question is who makes those choices for public schooling, whether we’re satisfied with a ‘Mercator’ style teaching of history, and how and how much of these rich conversations can or should be taught before college. Those questions can and should be a matter of civil public debate.

And who makes those choices? I’d say historians, but then, of course, I’m biased.