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Last year, I taught a course in writing about history. I used the basilica as a test case. If I were to write a history about the basilica, how would I go about it?
Over the course of several weeks, I presented students with steps I’d take to document the history of St. Paul’s. I never intended to actually write a history of the basilica but I was tempted, especially after learning about the cemetery buried under the pavement behind the basilica.
The all-but-forgotten cemetery has stymied development. You see, you can’t dig up a cemetery without informing the descendants of the people buried there. But nobody knows who’s packed in the graves under the pavement. All we know is they were poor and mostly Irish.
One of these days, after I catch up with other writing projects, I’ll write a history of the basilica. But I still have some doubts about the project. Of all the stories to write and ways to spend my time, why, I wonder, should I write history?
I can list dozens of reasons to read history. At the top of my list is pleasure. Reading history is a pleasure. I want to know who came before me. I want to see their stories play out – even if I already know how the story ends.
But why should I, or anybody, write history?
The easy answer is the same as why to read history: for the pleasure of discovery. To see the world differently. To put our short lives in perspective.
But we also write history to learn how to read history. To understand how historians work, attempt their work. What teaches understanding and appreciation better than trying to do the thing for yourself? That’s where the learning is.
Anybody embarking on a history project – whether for the general public or for the family – should know the dangers of history.
Writing history isn’t dangerous work but there are risks involved.
First, there’s the ever-present danger of getting the story wrong.
History’s rife with mistakes, myths and half-truths. Christopher Columbus is the obvious example. Contrary to the old story, Columbus didn’t discover America. Indigenous North Americans were already here and Vikings made it across the Atlantic before Columbus ever made his trek. And besides, Columbus landed in the Caribbean, not North America. He was nowhere near what we today call America.
This sort of error can be corrected and that’s one job for the historian, to correct the facts.
There’s another, larger danger that budding historians should know about: the impulse to distort history for partisan purposes.
It’s so easy to succumb to the desire to tilt history in the favour of our own interests. We see this tilting almost daily, as various interests wrestle for control of ‘the narrative’ so they can direct ‘the discourse.’
The fact is that the discipline of history is as good as the memory hole when we use it to score points in today’s political arena.
In the form of presentism – the fallacy of projecting today’s morality onto the past – partisan distortions fully destroy the purpose of historic writing. History should foremost be a factual recounting of what happened in the past. As a field, history is not about judging the past but about understanding the past. Not about condemning the people of the past and indicting their descendants, but understanding how events brought us to now.
The past may be a foreign land, but by reading and writing history we may discover that its inhabitants are not so different from us. If we ask the right questions of our forbearers, they can give us answers to help us avoid the mistakes they made. We might find the past is closer than we think.
That’s what happened to me. As I researched the basilica across the way, I discovered that a distant relation of mine – a priest named John Joseph Egan – worked as a rector in the basilica.
I never expected to find that connection. When I did, I saw the basilica was not as far away as I thought it was.
Troy Media columnist Robert Price is a communications and professional writing instructor at the University of Toronto.
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