In the fall, I will be teaching a modern world history class at PLNU. Today, a buddy who knows this asked me if I find that sometimes history books are revisionist and leave out or change things. This question of revisionist history comes up especially among my conservative friends. Often it is simply stated as a fact. “Schools teach revisionist history!”
What does that mean? Usually it means that my friends are complaining that a text inordinately points out the negative aspects of, say European men, in an attempt to “revise” history in such a way that paints European men in a negative light. Of course this kind of bias does occur in some history books. But how do we interpret it?
Presently I’m reading two texts in preparation for my class: Traditions & Encounters and Worlds Together, Worlds Apart. I mentioned to my buddy how the Traditions & Encounters text doesn’t say much of the Portuguese captain Vasco da Gama’s 1498 trip to Calicut. Merely, that he got there, returned with spices for a sizable profit, and that Portugal came to dominate sixteen-century trade in the Indian Ocean. Worlds Together, Worlds Apart adds that “revisionist” bit about da Gama’s 1502 return trip, during which he slaughtered his way across the Indian Ocean, in some cases cutting off the ears, noses, and hands of crews he captured before burning them alive. Which is the revisionist account: the one that leaves out da Gama’s brutality or the one that includes it?
Any time we look at the past and it causes us discomfort, our proper first response should be humility. This is not the same as guilt, which is a form of false humility, which of course is another form of pride. Humility does not apologize for wrongs it has not committed; instead, humility recognizes that it’s possible that we would have committed such wrongs if we had been there, and that, perhaps, there are wrongs we are committing even now, unaware.