History Myth: You Can’t Change the Past

I hear this a lot, and not always in relation to History as an academic discipline: “You can’t change the past!” While you can change what you are doing right now (perhaps) and therefore alter the future (maybe), the past is immutable. Right? Wrong.

Whether it’s personal history or academic history, the past is variable. We know from recent studies of memory that even our personal memories may be faulty, whether we believe that we shook hands with Mickey Mouse or re-construct our memories in therapy sessions. The entire field of neuroplasticity is based on evidence that the brain itself (and its corresponding shifts in emotion and behavior) changes over time.

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Copyright Kenneth Allen

The idea that the past is unchangeable derives from the definition of “the past” as consisting of externally verifiable, objective events. These events occurred – there is no way to undo them.

And yet, which things do we remember from that past? Why these things and not others? In which emotional contexts have we placed them? Those contexts influence our interpretation of the past.

For example, I remember my art teacher in high school drawing a large brain and a small brain on the chalkboard, and explaining that girls can’t do art because their brain is smaller. Throughout my life I have blamed him and his sexism for instilling me with a lack of confidence – to this day I do not draw. And yet, he may have thought he was being funny, or I may have had no confidence in my abilities already. I can certainly remember other times when someone in authority had told me I was no good at something, and my response was to prove them wrong. I may well be justifying my lack of visual art skills with this “memory”, putting it in that context for emotional reasons.

Context is also crucial in History as an academic discipline. We cannot change that the Bastille was stormed in July 1789. But how do we look at that event? What do we think it meant? Do we see it differently when our own society is in chaos, and barriers are being torn down, than we do in more placid eras?

Historians know that the purpose of doing history is not to rehash and memorize facts. It is to interpret those facts in the context of our own time. The entire field of historiography is built around the importance of setting historical studies within the timeframe of the historian. That’s why we now have histories of women, or poverty, or empire. What we’re interested in, and therefore what we look for in the past, changes over time. That changes “the past” in a very real sense.unbroken+trailer

It is no coincidence that we re-evaluate the British Empire when we are struggling with our own, or that we romanticise the counter-culture of the 1960s during a time of heightened materialism, or that we see a revival of World War II books and movies that struggle with the heroism of war during a time when our nation’s effectiveness in war is being questioned.

So of course we can change the past, both the academic past and the personal past. For our own pasts, we can recast our memories, reinterpret them, endow them with different meanings (in many ways, the entire field of psychotherapy is about doing exactly that). For the academic past, we can examine those “objective” events in light of our own interests and understandings. And that, after all, is what doing History is all about.