History Standards: A response to Chris Garton-Zavesky

By Mel Page, 18 November 1994

The following is a letter from Mel Page (PAGEM@ETSUSERV.EAST-TENN-ST.EDU), East Tennessee State University, was sent to the subscribers of H-NET List for World History (H-WORLD@msu.edu), on Fri, 18 Nov 1994 10:34:01 PCT.

Regarding the nature of what should be taught in history courses, Chris Garton-Zavesky asserts boldly that “history is a story,” but then wonders why this might be seen as elitist and, if it is in fact elitist, what's so wrong about that.

While I would agree that narrative is important to historical explanation (and teaching), I cannot accept the idea that “history is a story,” that is, history is a single coherent story with a unifying thread leading from the past to an unknown (and hence) uncertain future. Yet that implication is clearly the trust of Chris's comments.

In point of fact, history is MANY stories, each one (like all stories) composed out of selected portions of the reality which that story purports to represent. And therein are the problems. How do historians select what is included in the story? How are the stories formed so as to have meaning? And how may at least some of the various stories be linked together?

The answers, of course, are that predispositions of the historians must be at work. One kind of predispostion is to tell the stories as broadly as possible, to see individuals as parts of groups, not to exclude their individuality, but to include them in some more comprehensive way within the story. Another predisposition would be to tell only individual stories, and thus focus on those about whom more is known and complete stories can be constructed (great men, and much less frequently, women). Of course, there are many other possible predipositions.

What should be clear is that such narrative constructs cannot simply be the facts speaking (or more truthfully, spewing forth). No fact speaks! Only the historians (and other story tellers) give voice to the facts. And the predispositons—what are really the theoretical assumptions—of the historians shape the story (and stories) about the past which emerges from their narratives.

As Ken Wolf says: end of vent!