It’s so easy to study history and forget that these things actually happened. Like, George Washington woke up each morning, went to the bathroom, and put his underwear on before he walked out onto the battlefield. There’s actually a story that when he was crossing the Delaware in that seemingly tiny boat, there was a soldier standing in front of him blocking his view. He smacked him in the back of the head and yelled, “Sit down! I can’t see sh*t!” Is that true? Probably not. Do I want it to be true? More than anything I’ve ever wanted in the world.
“Washington Crossing the Delaware” by Emanuel Leutze, 1851 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Even this painting is biased! It was painted in 1851, on the eve of the Civil War, when we saw an explosion of patriotic art to try to keep the country together. Another example is the poem “Paul Revere’s Ride” written by Longfellow in 1861.
But the point is that history becomes infinitely more interesting when you remember that everyone you’re learning about was real. And if you play your cards right (or finally successfully invade Russia in the winter), you too could become a bold word in a history book one day! Just think: future students will ride in on their hoverboards and annoyingly ask their hologram teacher, “Do we need to know insert your name here for the test?” Cool, right?
This begs the question: who gets to decide what is worthy of a textbook or a fancy name? The simple answer is “the victors.” As in, “History is written by the victors.” (Thanks Winston!) But really, history is written by Europeans, which I guess for Winston Churchill was the same thing. Even though the tradition of studying the past has been around for as long as we’ve been cognitively aware that there is a past, European scholars in the 19th century were the ones who developed the professional field of history as a pseudo-scientific discipline. And they were organizing all of world history at a time when Europe was, undoubtedly, winning.
So why do we care? Because the entire way that we explain and understand history is essentially the European view of the past. Obviously, setting the estimated birth of Jesus Christ as our Year 0 is problematic for non-Christian civilizations. We threw them a bone a few years back when we stopped saying Before Christ (B.C.) and Anno Domini (A.D.) but let’s be honest, calling it the “Common Era” didn’t fool anyone…
Also, the way we divide up history is Euro-centric. The Classical Era lasts from 600 BCE to 600 CE because that parallels the rise and fall of the powerful western empires. China’s classical era ended in 220; the Islamic world experienced their “classical age” from 750 to 1258 (damn Mongols…) and the Americas are completely isolated living their life on their own timeline until the Europeans show up and force them into their narrative. And who, exactly, was modernizing during the “Modern Era?” Yeah, you get it. I’ll move on.
All of this is to say, that the way I organize my podcast is definitely problematic. So I’m sorry in advance to everyone out there, like me, who is frustrated by the lack of diverse narratives in traditional world history. I promise I will eventually free myself from the shackles of Eurocentric storytelling and look at history from other perspectives. But we’ve got to start somewhere.
So let’s go!