History as Storytelling, and the Reluctance to Share Authority

History, especially the human kind, means different things to different people, and no two people experience a moment in the same way. Human history, and by extension the narrative mode of communication, cannot be scientific because we cannot successfully subject it to the scientific method: there is no hypothesis to test, little is ever really a “fact,” and true objectivity, while a noble goal, is not actually attainable. But why must history be a science? Is it necessary to measure humanity, and, if so, what are we hoping to deduce?

While I don’t subscribe to the idea that “those who forget history are doomed to repeat it,” I do feel that the study of history is important. For me personally, the past is a treasure trove of stories of humanity; tales of cruelty and oppression often run parallel with those of incredible will, triumph, and kindness. Knowing what humanity has been—and where we’ve been—brings me a sense of belonging in the greater scheme of life; if ever I feel sorry for myself, it helps me to look for my place in history and thus be reminded of how small I really am. But also, my historical storytelling makes me somewhat popular at parties.

Even if children rank history as their least favorite school subject,[1] people do love stories, sometimes even more so if you tell them that it’s a “true story.” Perhaps, beyond the restrictive and detached high school teaching method of memorization that Burton discusses,[2] people just need to feel a connection to something bigger than themselves—they need to feel a personal attachment. While scholars find their Zen in ever dissecting the canon and reshaping historiography with their new interpretations and theories, some people just want to feel something in the history of humanity; they want to learn. I am hard pressed in seeing how that is wrong or any less worthy a pursuit.

Dan Cohen says that, “good is good, no matter the venue of publication or what the crowd thinks,”[3] and I wholeheartedly agree. Technology is not just a new way to crunch data, and enhancing the study of history through technology doesn’t have to involve destroying the system altogether. Technology is merely one tool of education and dissemination but, like Burton says, academic “resistance has less to do with the tools of the web and more to do with the web’s culture.[4] Why are scholars so afraid to let the public in to interpret and narrate their own stories—stories that we all have a right to? Are they afraid that the masses will get it wrong? Certainly, the Ivory Tower is not beyond reproach in that regard.

Members of academia can continue to scoff at digital history, but they cannot stop the public from embracing technology and they cannot stop irresponsible history from being disseminated. Far from showing a lack of interest in history, the public is consuming it now more than ever. We absorb historical portrayals through film, TV, video games, and even social media. And the public is questioning the practices of historiography when they ask, for instance, why so many textbooks only tell the tales of dead white men. If the public wants to know, and academia doesn’t have the tools to answer in the public forum, then where will the information come from? When history goes “wrong” on the Internet, are we to argue with armchair historians on the Web, or are we to instead help guide the public in critical historical methodology? Rather than dismiss blogs, podcasts, or other civilian history-based websites as irrelevant or unvetted, why not get involved with the conversation in a helpful and meaningful way?

The only danger technology poses to the field of history is that it may force new thinking, approaches, and practices as they relate to sharing authority. Technology, as it advances and becomes more commonplace, makes itself more affordable and available. Educators need not be highly skilled developers to lead the way in adopting new forms of storytelling, but they do need to be engaged in the process. If video game developers research history in addition to programming—for instance in the work of Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed series—what excuses do historians have in not learning how to learn some basic programming skills to share history themselves? While academia makes excuses as to why digital media and technology is unfeasible, history marches on.

– Laurel Wilson

[1] Orville Vernon Burton, “American Digital History,” Social Science Computer Review 23 (2005), reprinted online Center for History and New Media

[2] Ibid.

[3] Dan Cohen, “The Ivory Tower and the Open Web: Introduction: Burritos, Browsers, and Books,” July 26, 2011 Dan Cohen online

[4] Burton, “American Digital History”

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