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Does History Change?

Updated on January 21, 2011

In the article "Who Owns History," Eric Foner discusses his views of history. The following essay is a reflection of his writing.

If writer Eric Foner were to be asked, “Does history change?” he would assuredly answer, “yes.” In his article, “Who Owns History,” Foner states, “History always has been and always will be regularly rewritten, in response to new [ideas]” (17). Foner constantly discusses the idea of an ever-changing interpretation of historical events. While he acknowledges this change in interpretation, he defends historical truth in saying that “there often exists more than one legitimate way of recounting past events” (17).

If Foner were to be asked, he would confirm that history does, in fact, change. In his article, he discusses the idea of a changing history by giving examples of it, such as Britain’s condemning of a new history curriculum in an attempt to teach history their way, and communities throughout Northern America “taking steps” to incorporate more about slavery into their history. Foner would explain that history changes because of the directly proportional way in which human’s perception of history changes over time (13, 16). Foner writes that there “is nothing unusual or sinister in the fact that each generation rewrites history to suit its own needs,” which would prove that history is constantly changing (6). Because Foner realizes that different generations have the desire to see history in a way that they agree with, he knows that history itself will change based on however each generation decides to observe it.

Eric Foner sees history as more of an interpretation open to change than a set timeline, although historical accuracy is important. Foner writes that the study of history is a “constantly evolving, never-ending journey of discovery” (19). He would argue that history is not only a never-ending journey in that time continues to move forward, but also that history never settles with only one interpretation. As long as history exists, it will change; and Foner believes that there is nothing wrong with this. He would agree that a mere timeline of events could not give nearly enough understanding of history as an intellectual discussion or interpretation could.

Surely, Foner would also argue that only one interpretation of a historical event would be inadequate. Foner would argue that history changes because history exists only to be changed. When people ask why Rosa Parks did not give her seat to a white man on the bus, or why John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln, or why America did not join the League of Nations after World War I, they start to interpret history in their own way; forming their own opinions. By developing new ideas and motives for historical acts, their interpretation may change, altering history altogether.

While some may argue that change in history is impossible because of the incorrigibility of the past, Foner would counter that the events themselves do not change, only the way in which society interprets them and shares them with their fellow human beings through words or textbooks. There is a fine line between shifting interpretation and historical distortion. In order for history to truly spark thought in the minds of future generations, there has to be room for interpretation. There must be room for change.


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