When I first started my graduate studies in History in July 2015, I thought of the journey ahead as hiking a mountain. I have always been a hiker, and I live for a view, especially the one at the top. The week before I began my first class, I had hiked a particularly challenging mountain in the Adirondack High Peaks. It was rocky, muddy, all uphill, and had only two views the entire way. But wow, was the view from the top incredible, and all worth the effort. So, when I began my class, I thought, this study of history was going to be like that – that someday, I’d get to the top, and the view would be all worth it.
As I’ve gone along, however, this perspective has shifted. There are views, beautiful, magnificent views, but there actually is no “top of the mountain” view. Not in history. It’s an uphill climb, to be sure. It’s hard work. But you never actually “arrive.” Not as long as time keeps marching on. History is ever changing, always evolving, and the views, the understanding and interpretation of history, changes and evolves as well. You climb the mountain, and every once in a while, you reach a break in the trees and look out, and the same view you saw down the mountain has changed. The landscape is still the same, but your view has changed. You’ve changed, and so has your outlook.
Yes, the landscape is the same. But it looks different to you than it had a half mile down the mountain. And it looks different to someone looking out from another mountain at the same valley five miles away, or from the bottom of the valley, or from an airplane above. Your position is what affects it. Think of history as that landscape. Yes, something happened. It happened the way it happened. But to a historian in the 1870s studying slavery in the Old South, what happened looked a lot different than it does for a historian studying the same events in 2017. These two historians are looking at the same thing. But their position is different. Their upbringing, their culture, their education, their position in time relating to the event, are all entirely different. The study of history never “arrives.” In 2057 these events will still take on a new shape, there will be a new understanding, and new questions will be asked of it. This 2057 historian will look at these events, and he will even build off the 1870s and 2017 historians, and everyone in between, but his interpretation will be entirely different, building off everything that came before him and everything that he is.
Our kids will look at a certain person or event in history and ask “what happened?” And we can explain it to them to the best of our ability. But it’s important for them to understand that there are no “straight answers” in history. There is no “end all be all” answer to one question. The questions can change, and they should change, and they will change. Our understanding will evolve. It will climb the mountain, and we will see the same landscape from a different angle. We can’t travel back in time, but our inquiry can only grow.
Children’s inquiry is infinite. They should ask questions. They’ll ask different questions than you did, than their teachers did, and that is the way it should be. We can be there to boost them up the mountain. We can help them find the trail, or take a new trail. But let them forge their own path. Time is marching on, and the future belongs to our children. The world is theirs for the discovery.
Let’s go climb a mountain!