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Rewriting history - the failings of a common memory

Updated Monday, 31st December 2007

What we think of history is skewed by what our grandparents, and theirs, thought was important.

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The general point that I've wanted this show to make is that we - 'we' here means the public in general - often inherit views of what was important in history which are just wrong.

Some of them, like the Battle of Britain, are what I'd call 'over-determined': they have so much going for them that it's no puzzle that they became the official version, especially in this case, when the other explanation involves a rather more shady event. Others - like fact that the main losers of the battle of Trafalgar were the Spanish, not the French, are harder to explain.

Most academics never get a chance to communicate with a broad public, since the government only funds us (essentially) to carry out (often esoteric) research and teach students. This is a shame; it leads the field of popular history largely to amateur historians and writers. Some of these are brilliant geniuses, as good as the very best PhD-holding academics. Others aren't. This is a topic that we come to in one of the podcast discussions that accompany this series.

Vietnam War memorial, Seattle, Washington Creative commons image Icon riacale under CC-BY-NC-SA licence under Creative-Commons license
A young man visits the Vietnam Memorial in Seattle

A few weeks ago I found out that some lovely Americans had actually done some research on how we learn about history. They took a group of teenagers from Seattle and investigated what they knew about the Vietnam War. Although their parents often had very different views about the war, the kids all tended to think the same thing. They'd picked up a story about the war which had some of its elements in it - the apparent futility of the struggle and its dire effects on many of the US soldiers who fought it, and the wave of protest against the war at home. But they had no idea about the fact that, right until the final pullout, a majority of Americans supported the war. There was no room for pro-war demonstrations in their narrative of events.

The whole paper is available here, and it's worth a look:

Common Belief and the Cultural Curriculum (1.31MB)

(If you have problems opening this pdf file, try downloading the free acrobat reader)

Now somebody needs to do the same job for the UK.





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