Reflecting on “Historical Awareness” and “Uses of History”

Historical Awareness really took a bite out of what people perceive as history and where there is potential for error. Really, the whole idea of being historically aware seems to challenge the ability to access history. Bias is everywhere, it is something we hear several times a day in college and it is most certainly true when one looks at events through a historical lens. With memory, tradition, and experiences shaping every person so too does it shape society. This piece does discuss social memory and how as a collective humanity will focus on a “social memory”. Though the author uses explanations of what he is familiar with, British history, I found myself thinking of the many monuments and memorials in our area.

The Confederate General Stonewall Jackson lost a limb in Fredericksburg and at our park’s headquarters there is a monument for him. It is my understanding that the park itself is a state park and the monument’s funding was not paid for by the state. So, there is a large monument, similar to the Washington Monument, honoring Jackson and, to those who problematically ignore the ethnic oppressions occurring during the Civil War, celebrating states’ rights. Collective memory of the Civil War varies from place to place in our country. Fredericksburg seems to be a hotbed of debate for what that collective memory should be because there is so much history that occurred here, but also because there are many political allegiances and ethnic divisions in this city where most see it as a line of North and South. On page five, Tosh makes a great point, “…mainstream history suppresses this truth, what it offers is not universal history.” While a popular phrase in history class seems to be that history is told by the victors, that isn’t always true nor does that make it an accurate interpretation of history. Tosh did an excellent job of painting this picture. We can see that not only is history passed on, but what I see is that the political way history is remembered (via monuments and memorials) also shapes how a historical event is passed on and remembered.

Historicism and the jobs of historicists is also laid out in this text and I found that equally as interesting as the explanation of social memory. Tosh discusses that it is a historicists job to unabashedly present facts, in a sense making the job one of science. However, he also discusses the influence a necessity of art and literature in history, particularly capturing the humanity of the people of an era. This is more why I chose the subject as a major. As a lover of literature on may quickly forget the depth and context of something that a writer hundreds of years ago was writing about, especially when the material is presented by a teacher that is teaching to a test. The poem “O Captain! My Captain!” may feel like a powerful poem of a sailor to his captain that passed away while guiding them through a storm, but it is actually about President Abraham Lincoln and makes a beautiful poem all the more powerful. This poem is then a glance into not only the emotions of many Americans, but an example of post-Civil War Union sentiment and a piece of history.

It could be argued that propaganda could be seen as an element of both the Jackson memorial and “O Captain! My Captain!” as they are both devices of social memory. A tomb for an unknown union soldier lies next to the monument in the park- a pathetically small plot mark that is rarely visited or mentioned and “O Captain! My Captain!” doesn’t discuss the devastation of southern America where land was scorched and the male population was decimated. Tosh calls on historians to essentially do better by explaining convergence as the difference “…between [a historian’s] work and social memory…” and that as historians, we must acknowledge our biases and work to clearly focus on the facts with as little pressure from the society we presently live in and our own experiences as possible. The Uses of History then proceeds to warn of the follies that can occur while trying to approach history.

Uses of History is a two layered warning cake called “metahistory”. One aspect is that those that study history or think they know the aspects of it can predict the future. I am not as completely sold on writing off some aspects of this as Tosh was. Aspects of International Relations focus on the histories of foundational civilizations and creates long standing and functioning theories that prove that to a point history does or can repeat itself. Thucydides was a Greek general during the Peloponnesian War and wrote a book discussing state power, its concepts and opinions stand true today; that power governs interactions. While I would not go as far as to say that things don’t change, nuclear weapons certainly changed power politics and history, or that a historian could predict the future, strong theories could be made and the saying that history repeats itself is frequently used because history does repeat itself. Trends and theories are made by approaching events with the detailed history of how/why events took place and how/why people reacted to those events. Of course, this already then addresses the second portion of Tosh’s explanation of metahistory, which is erasure. History isn’t useless, we see that every day and arguably history repeats itself because of the people in power that deny history.

In closing, Tosh’s Historical Awareness and Uses of History explain important components of understanding history, how it is understood as a community, and the balancing act of understanding history both as useful and a tool without assumptions. I look forward to embracing context, differences, and process when I approach history and study new civilizations. It may not be easy to compartmentalize our own biases, but knowing the pitfalls of ourselves and of social memory can help with creating a clearer image of the past.

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