Sunday, June 30, 2013

Does It Matter if the Wright Brothers Were Not the First in Flight?

Recent news demonstrates how history is not cut-and-dry. History is a puzzle to be explored. Every "story" has at least three sides. Every historical moment should be subject to interpretation.

This week "Connecticut lawmakers write Wright Brothers out of history as ‘first in flight.’" And one may wonder, "Can they do that? How can such a "fact" be turned around and questioned and even knocked down by a political body?" 

I wonder how we established our fact in the first place. 

It seems in a time when America is strongly polarized that this issue of questioning a "fact" becomes even more important. What is a fact? What does it take for us to settle on a particular historical truth; to enter a narrative into a text book and to teach something as if that is how it absolutely happened? When do we know that the truth is absolute?

Also in the news this week, it was revealed that "Aerial Photos Offer Clues to Earhart Mystery". It seems that new archival evidence may hold some answers for us. The mystery of Earhart's disappearance has become so ensconced in romantic historical notions of Americans, it is hard to believe that we might have a solution to this historical mystery. 

As another case in point, earlier this year, the British discovered the bones of Richard III. DNA evidence confirmed that Richard was indeed found under a parking lot. (Not very romantic.) We learned that Richard III was not who the historical rumors purported him to be. It is interesting to consider how centuries of rumors get passed down and can only be broken by the hard evidence of archives and archaeological finds. But is it too late for the much maligned Richard's reputation to be straightened out? Do we now have too many years of legend behind us to bring "fact" front and center?

I learned in school that the Civil War was fought to combat slavery and to save the Union. I was taught that it was a good and just war. That may be, but nobody ever told me to question that. Some "facts" are actually opinion. In an article written earlier this month for The Atlantic, this week's 150th anniversary of the Civil War is more closely examined. 150 Years of Misunderstanding of the Civil War focuses on the horrors and deeper meaning behind war. Death and amputation that was recorded by diarists and correspondents were backed up by Matthew Brady's "historical" images -- many of which were posed, as I remember. We have two different truths. Both the patriotic legends and the highlighted horrific have been molded into romantic narratives. How do we know what is really true? Even archives are created from a particular point of view.

Does it matter if the Wright Brothers were not the first in flight? Yes. Yes, it does. It is time for us to recognize that stories we are spoon fed are not necessarily right. It is time we realized that history is not romantic. Instead, history can provide us a path for evaluating modern society - to see where we've been and where we should go. Looking back on false notions only perpetuates societal problems that we need to examine with clarity in order to fix them. We must teach children to seek primary sources, to look out for alternative views, and to evaluate information for themselves with an understanding that the information we easily come-by is not necessarily right.

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