And That’s the Problem I Have with History

By Robert Mitchell. Robert, 51, is a freelance writer who has been writing for 30 years. His previous efforts have been mostly in ghost-writing, but he is currently working on his own book! He is from Manchester, Jamaica. Please read his article and leave your thoughts and comments below.

Sunita, having been summoned by an upset sounding Lauren, hurries off, leaving the glass of water she was drinking precariously perched atop a filing cabinet. A bored Jack eyes the glass, and nodding, proclaims that it is half full. Georgia, sitting at the table across from him, looks up from her computer monitor and shakes her head. “Nope, it’s half empty.” She concludes. Rachel, who had been sitting over on the other side of the room, sees what is going on, and opines that the glass is actually full.

For the record all three positions are correct, even Rachel’s, because the portion of the glass that does not contain any water has air in it. What this shows is that despite looking at the same thing different people could quite reasonably each be seeing something different.

Now there is a statement out there that has been attributed to one Mr. Henry Ford; the statement goes like this: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” That statement by Ford, just as in the case cited above with the water in the glass, can be construed in a myriad of ways. One could have come away with the impression that Mr. Ford had made a gift of horses to some people. Another person may have formed the impression that he was an egotist, who didn’t care much for the opinion of others. That same statement could also be construed by someone else as Mr. Ford saying that in general people crave things that they really have little use for.

The fact of the matter is that if ten different individuals were asked to explain what they thought that Ford statement meant it is quite conceivable that each of the ten ensuing explanations could all be different and at the same time reasonable. And there’s the rub, to my mind, insofar as it concerns the subject of History. Is it accurate, and if yes, whose truth is it?

To illustrate the point let us juxtapose what was said regarding the glass of water with a war that took place centuries ago. Will what we read today about that event be a true reflection of what actually took place back then? What about the reason given for what precipitated the war? What version would the victor give, and would it be the same as that of the loser? And isn’t it possible that an entirely different account may very well be posited by an unrelated third party looking on from another jurisdiction? Again, curiously enough, all the versions could conceivably be accurate. Which, then, is to be taken as gospel?

As stated above, Mr. Ford’s statement could be interpreted in any one of a number of ways were it to be taken at face value. Should the reader, however, be made aware of a few pertinent facts, those number of ways would be reduced considerably. The first fact is that the Mr. Henry Ford in question was an American automobile manufacturer. He has been credited with creating the Model T in 1908 as well as developing the assembly line mode of production, a system which revolutionized the automobile industry. Fact two is that, in automobile jargon, ‘horses’ refer to horsepower, which is the power an engine produces. In mathematical terms, one unit of horsepower is the amount of power required to move 550 pounds one foot in one second.

Having had the benefit of learning who Mr. Ford was, and his association with ‘horses’, his statement now becomes a horse of a different colour (pardon the pun). It is apparent that what Mr. Ford meant was that, were he to have asked the people who bought his cars what they wanted, they would have said faster cars. What this demonstrates is that context plays an important role when deliberating on things of the past.

Source is another crucial factor that has to be taken into account in relation to history. A former Prime Minister was laid to rest recently here in Jamaica. He was revered by one half of the country and reviled by the other. There is now a raging debate going on as to whether or not he deserves to be accorded the title of national hero for his contribution to the country. No doubt a couple of books will be written about him… When those books are read one hundred years from now, however, will they contain the truth? And whose truth will it be – friend, foe, or family?

3 comments on “And That’s the Problem I Have with History

  1. Coretta Burgess on

    Interesting read and certainly food for thought. Would have loved your take on the other topics as well. Maybe next time.

  2. Howard Reynolds on

    Thought provoking indeed. The history of the native Americans will indeed be different depending on whether it was recorded by them or white settlers. The same would apply to West Indian slaves and slave masters of that era. History is indeed a dubious item.


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