Janes, Kathryn (Jane Long Middle School)
Houston Teacher’s Institute (2005)
Every year I tell my students several things about the study of history, all of which tend to surprise them. First and foremost, history is not like mathematics where one plus one will always equal two, or science where H2O always stands for water. What we know about any given historical event depends on the records that survive, and even those records may be suspect. Sometimes documents are destroyed as part of an intentional cover-up; many other documents are lost through carelessness or simply to the ravages of time. The problem for historians caused by lack of a complete record is compounded by the fact that different people perceive the same event in varying ways, influenced at least in part by their own attitudes and frame of reference. Even with all of the technology available to us in the 21st century, we must deal with the reality of incomplete and often distorted historical records. By the time I finish giving my students this spiel, they frequently look a little shell-shocked, especially when I add that there will often be more than one correct answer to questions that I pose to them in class. While there are some absolutes in history – Columbus did get to America in 1492, George Washington was the first president of the United States, Texas did win its independence from Mexico in 1836 – there are also many times when the story of a historical event depends on the point of view of the individual teling the story. Presenting the story of an event from only one point of view is a key tool for propaganda.