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The Importance of the Past

Human beings inhabit a very unpredictable world. The human environment is a product of the interaction between millions of forces. In order to chart their course through an unpredictable world, human individuals and societies need some sort of guide to determine what possible consequence they take face, upon taking a certain step. The study of the past is therefore important because it is an important factor in determining present and future conduct (Lowenthal, 1998).

Another aspect of the past is its role in determining the self-image of a human individual or society. Societies cite the real or imagined beliefs and actions of their real or imagined ancestors as evidence that they are a brave, generous and just people, similarly stories about the history of rival societies are told to show them in a bad light as compared to one’s own society (Lowenthal, 1998).

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History is also a tool used to establish the validity of the current beliefs or ideas held by an individual, society or section of a society and the invalidity of the ideas and beliefs held by their ideological enemies (Lowenthal, 1998).

The Reason for Disagreement in the Views and Interpretations of the Past

Because the past is used as a tool to determine the present and future course of a society, it’s self image and the validity of its beliefs. It becomes a device in the hands of people who wish to chart a particular course for their society, present a particular self-image of the society and establish the validity of certain beliefs (Lowenthal, 1998).

An example of this can be seen in the Enola Gay exhibit controversy at the Smithsonian Institution. The historians at the Smithsonian were came up with what they thought was an objective position on the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The exhibit depicted the horrible destruction caused by the bombing however the establishment view that the bombing of two Japanese cities was necessary in order to force the Japanese government to surrender unconditionally, was presented in the exhibit (Bird & Sherwin, 1995).

Other historians objected to the exhibit on the grounds that it adopted an essentially nationalist position justifying American atrocities, tried to minimize the depiction of horrible destruction and the immense loss of civilian life caused by the bombing and suppressed other facts which would reflect badly on the United States (Bird & Sherwin, 1995).

However, according to politicians espousing a hyper nationalistic and militaristic agenda, the exhibit was an exercise in anti-Americanism. These politicians were outraged that the museum would exhibit something that would show even the slightest criticism of the United States or the military forces of the United States. Such an exhibit might convince the population to oppose their political agenda (Trescott, 1995).

The exhibit was also opposed by World War II veterans. They believed firmly that their side in the World War II had been purely good while their enemies were purely evil. They believed that any action undertaken by their side against the enemy was justified. The veterans also belonged to a generation in which it was not considered offensive to assert that the lives of American soldiers were worth more than those of Japanese civilians (Ringle, 1994).

Suggestions that the United States may not have been purely a force of good and may have performed actions comparable to the barbarities committed by the German and Japanese enemies caused an explosive emotional reaction in the veterans.

In contrast to the veterans and the nationalistic politicians, the historians belonged to an era in which intellectuals adopted distaste for American militarism following defeat in the Vietnam War. They also possessed a wider view of the world and enough knowledge of history to know that patriotism and nationalism are often rhetorical devices used disingenuously by rulers whose actions are often motivated purely by self-interest. Instead of believing, as the politicians and the veterans did, that the United States was a purely benevolent power, they recognized that the United States has often caused immense destruction in other countries (Ringle, 1994).

The controversy over the Kennewick Man was another example of an historical issue which caused passionate disagreement between ideologically opposed partisans. To the leader of the Umatillas tribe, the Kennewick Man was evidence that their tribe had always lived in the Washington area and that the scientific belief that they had crossed over to the Americas from Northern Asia was not true (Geranion, 1997).

The Difference between ‘Heritage History’ and Objective Studies of the Past

In the past, history was primarily written for the purpose of inducing internal solidarity and enhancing the well being of a particular nation. The writing of histories was part of the nation-building efforts of states. Histories were a selection of facts and myths designed to give a positive image to a particular nation and to vilify its enemies.

The history books written in earlier centuries were often commissioned by kings and emperors for the expressed purpose of glorifying their ancestors and providing ideological support for their rule. The purpose of history was to encourage an existing population and to secure its future. History was a socially constructed narrative that Lowenthal terms ‘Heritage History’ (Lowenthal, 1998).

Gradually historians have tried to increase the objectivity of history and to distinguish it from ‘heritage history’. History and heritage differ in their purposes. The purpose of history is to explore and explain the past, recognizing its complexities and unknown aspects (Lowenthal, 1998).

The purpose of heritage on the other hand, is to simplify the past and to come up with an interpretation of the past that may be useful in the achievement of present purposes. According to Lowenthal, the public is only interested in heritage, if narrative espoused by ‘heritage history’ departs from the facts known through objective history; it only bothers some intellectuals (Lowenthal, 1998).

History and heritage also differ in the methodology employed to come up with a narrative. History depends on the use of the scientific method and the use of objective criteria to judge historical sources. Objective methodologies employed by historians in order to judge sources may include textual criticism, fingerprint matching, DNA testing, and carbon dating etc.

Heritage pre-selects those historical sources which can be used to establish a particular narrative, regardless of their authenticity, and dismisses all other sources. Source criticism and other objective methodologies may be employed in the composition of heritage history, but only for the purpose of abandoning inconvenient sources (Lowenthal, 1998).

According to Lowenthal, heritage and history are separate but linked phenomenon. Historians attempt to be impartial however it may be impossible for a historical researcher to be utterly unbiased. Therefore, it is possible that historians may come up with a narrative that includes elements of heritage, despite having an intention to come up with an authentic and impartial history.

References

Bird, K., & Sherwin, M. (1995, July 31). Enola Gay Exhibit: The Historians’ Letter To The Smithsonian. Retrieved October 02, 2010, from doug-long.com: http://www.doug-long.com/letter.htm

Geranion, N. (1997, September 21). The Kennewick Man crisis Archeologists and Indians clash over a 9,300-year-old skull that could rewrite New World history. The Toronto Star .

Lowenthal, D. (1998). The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ringle, K. (1994, September 26). At Ground Zero; 2 Views of History Collide Over Smithsonian A-Bomb Exhibit. The Washington Post , p. a.01.

Trescott, J. (1995, May 19). Senator Warns Smithsonian on Controversies. The Washington Post , p. D.06.

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