A little perspective . . .

Ok, ok, ok.  I have a confession to make.  On my trip to NYC to celebrate the launch of the new History Day year, I found a little time to sneak in a Broadway show.  But just to show that History Day is never far from my mind, I learned a very important History Day lesson while enjoying the delightful story of the witches of Oz in Wicked.

In case you don’t love Gregory Maguire novels as much as I do, Wicked tells the Wizard of Oz story from the Wicked Witch of the West’s point of view.  In essense, she’s not wicked, she’s just misunderstood.  At one point in the musical, the Witch confronts the Wizard about some evil deed he is doing.  She accuses him of misleading the people of Oz through lies.  His response is what made me think of History Day (and yes, of course his response was in song, but I will type it in paragraph form to make it easier to read):

“Where I’m from, we believe all sorts of things that aren’t true. We call it – ‘history.’  A man’s called a traitor or [a] liberator.  A rich man’s a thief or [a] philanthropist. Is one a crusader, or [a] ruthless invader?  It’s all in which label is able to persist. There are precious few at ease with moral ambiguities, so we act as though they don’t exist.”

Can’t you just hear the music?  Er, I mean, do you see the point?  The Wizard jokes that history is just a bunch of lies because it often is made up of multiple perspectives, or many points-of-view.  He says that while some people call a man a thief, others call him a philanthropist. These differing opinions exist in almost every aspect of human history.  We don’t always see them because one point-of-view is often adopted as the “official” perspective. (The Wizard says exactly this in his line about labels.) 

An example: History often labels John Jay as an “abolitionist.” But does your history textbook also label him as “slave owner”?  Probably not, but it’s true!  How can one person be two things that are so opposite?  Hmmm.  I bet it caused him a lot of CONFLICT and COMPROMISE.  (How’s that for a subtle hint?)  Even better, I bet it caused the textbook writers a bunch of conflict.  Their compromise?  Er, well, can you call completely ignoring one perspective a compromise?

Perhaps the most important and most complex line of wizardy wisdom (“There are precious few at ease with moral ambiguities, so we act as though they don’t exist”) gives a little insight into why one dominant view prevails.  Humans don’t always like to acknowledge that our historical heros are, well, human.  It makes us uncomfortable to praise John Jay for making strides toward abolition of slavery when we know he owned slaves.  So sometimes history (and history textbooks) don’t mention these icky parts of history because, well, it clutters up the story.  

But it’s these multiple perspectives that make our jobs as 21st century historians so fascinating.  We get to dig into primary source diaries, letters, photographs, and manuscripts and learn so much more than a textbook could or would ever tell us.  We can read these things and then can say, “Hey!  John Jay wasn’t some perfect human being.  He had flaws just any other guy.”  Seeing different sides to one story not only allows us think critically about history, but it also helps us see that most of the important figures in history were just like us. (Only much, much, weirder.)

Does this make sense?  Do I make a decent argument here?  I think so.  And by the way, the musical was wonderful! I enjoyed every minute. 🙂

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