By Chet Yarbrough
The Great Courses: The Skeptic’s Guide to American History
By: Professor Mark A. Stoler
Narrated by Professor Stoler
Mark A. Stoler, Ph.D. Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Vermont
Contrary to popular opinion, Professor Stoler argues history does not repeat. Stoler suggests history reflects current beliefs influenced by past remembrance.
What is the truth of history? Is there a truth? Mark Stoler, like many historians, sets out to debunk modern perceptions of history. To professor Stoler, context and interpretation are the arbiters of history’s truth.
The frustration one has with all historian’s analysis of the past is with “fact choices”; as well as their interpretation. A great part of Stoler’s argument shows that some historians, like most human beings, view the past through the prism of the present. The result confuses readers of history who seek truth.
Some suggest Kellyanne Conway’s comment about “alternative facts” means there is no truth.
Councilor to President Trump
An example would be historians who argue about past Presidents by choosing facts of history that support their argument. A past President of the United States is great, average, or awful depending on what facts are chosen and how those facts are interpreted. History seems revised in every generation.
George Washington is the father of our country. Washington made many mistakes as leader of the military during the American Revolution. Washington won the most important American battles of the revolution leading to British withdrawal.
Thomas Jefferson sold all his slaves (except for the offspring of Sally Hemmings, his black mistress) to pay debts before his death. He believed blacks were inherently less intelligent than whites. Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence which stated “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal…”
Abraham Lincoln proposes a plan to ship all American Negroes to another country to solve the issue of slavery. Lincoln executes the emancipation proclamation that frees American slaves.
Franklin Roosevelt supported industry over labor during the depression. He represented the upper-class of society. Roosevelt created jobs for American unemployed with a government financed program, the WPA.
Stoler infers there is truth, but it lies in knowing history is a phenomenon that cannot be separated from the present. The facts of the past do not change but unreported facts are dredged up by subsequent historians and history is revised. We call this revisionist history; i.e. a euphemism for reinterpretation of selected facts of history.
That is why Stoler insists history does not repeat itself while Twain suggests history rhymes. With human nature as it is, the past is always present but in similar; not identical ways. History is not repeating itself. New history is being made based on new facts that fit modern societal norms. Stoler implies context of the present has changed history of the past.
Stoler supports his argument with numerous examples:
- The origin of religious tolerance is not a founding principle of America. Early Americans were as religiously intolerant as the countries from which they came. Stoler suggests religious tolerance evolved in American history through the mechanism of unintended consequence.
- Stoler argues American history is a story of imperialism, and that America has never been an isolationist country.
- Stoler explains George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt remain as the three highest rated Presidents but with interpretations of history that have changed in different eras. Many American Presidents have risen and fallen in the eyes of historians. Wilson fell in part because of disclosed information about his racism. Grant rose in part because of disclosed information about his opposition to Andrew Johnson (Abraham Lincoln’s Vice President) who condoned slavery.
- In Stoler’s opinion, one of the greatest unsung heroes of American history is George Marshall because of his service to country.
- To Stoler, America’s role in WWI and WWII is misleading in many American histories because of misinterpretation of America’s contribution to the war’s beginnings and endings. Nationalism often gets in the way of objective truth when assessing any countries role in war.
- Stoler notes the United States has never had a laissez-faire government. American government has always had an out sized influence over winners and losers in the economy.
Stoler’s lectures are a remembrance of things past, but just as with all historians, Stoler reports facts he chooses to recognize. The value of his lectures is realization that facts of history are immutable; interpretation is not. Interpretation is based on newly report facts, current events, and society’s evolution.
There are no alternative facts in history. There are only new facts that lead to different interpretations of history. Is that a truth or another fiction foisted on every new generation?