"A Historian's Manifesto" Draft 1

This summer I read through a collection of historians' essays on historical counterfactuals entitled The Collected What If?

I was particularly struck by how very little the "little" people of history appeared in the pages—the colonized, the lower classes, the disempowered. To be sure, counterfactuals are very easy to write if one seizes upon a "great man" of history and imagines that he died early, didn't attend a pivotal event, or merely made a different decision. Many—if not most—of the essays in the collection followed this pattern, and those that didn't focused on "great events" to much the same effect.

This observation prompted me to make a statement on thoughts I've had many times before—a manifesto, as it were:

Napoleon I
As scholarly as they may become, or as discerning as they may be, most historians end up serving as little more than the mouthpieces for the stories of empires, conquerors, and dominating cultures of the past. Historians may analyze these stories in detail, place them in new light, and even resoundingly critique the actions of the powerful, but such work still supports the dominant individuals and institutions of history at the expense of the rest of humanity. It matters not only how our stories are told, but also whose stories they are.

They say history is written by the winners, and very often this holds true. In order to change our world for the better, though—one that provides for every member of our species, and our planet as a whole—historians will have to play their part. It is not enough for students to learn revisionist histories; they must learn entirely new histories. Instead of seeking to portray "great men" or "glorious" states in new ways, historians have an obligation to seek out our ancestors who have been written off, forgotten, and consigned to the dustbin of history. History should be written by, for, and about our species as a whole, not its minuscule elite.

Haida family, c. 1912 (source)
History shapes our perceptions of our present and future. Histories that focus on select individuals and powerful organizations disempower all of us and each generation we educate. If our children and their future children continue to believe that their actions won't matter—compared to those of governments and charismatic leaders—change for our world will be slow in coming, or it will be change for the worse.

Historians and history educators can take concrete and powerful actions to combat this threat. We must make it our calling to teach people how significant their daily lives are, and what power all of us have to change the world.

Note: A surprising number of people have criticized me before on YouTube and on this blog for calling myself a historian. I believe anyone who engages with the past as a scholar and shares that with others is a historian. I'm training to be a history educator, I do historical research, and I write about history academically and recreationally. If that doesn't make someone a historian, I don't know what does. Also note, I expect I will write new drafts of this manifesto in the future, just like with my statement "Why History Matters."

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