Pennsylvania has a rich and storied history, and yet a true understanding of it is out of reach for many people. I have always enjoyed learning about history, finding stories from the past and trying to get a better understanding of the people who influenced events for centuries up until today.
Unfortunately, I see far too little of what I call good history. It's not about what's bright, uplifting and shiny. I do not need anyone to blow sunshine up my pants to tell me our predecessors were wonderful. They were as complex and bewildering as people of today. Good history instructs and it tells a intriguing tale of what actually happened. Each issue of your newspaper includes items that the editors have ranked by importance -- take a look at where a news item appears, the size of its headline and how much space is allotted to tell the story. Good history works the same way.
In contrast, bad history and really BAD history works in the opposite way. Instead of telling us the most important or consequential bits of information, those are left hidden while we learn something useless, wrong, misleading or trivial. While I love trivia, I would prefer to take away something that makes me think, including something controversial, rather than a factoid that clutters the history. Even worse, bad history tells us who, when and where and leaves out the what, why and how. That leaves it about as dry as can be!
Bad history is too easy to find; it seems to be everywhere. Historical sites, markers placed by the government, textbooks and TV provide countless examples of the useless history. Good history is harder to find.
One of the best examples of good and bad history is the Underground Railroad. When most people talk about the Underground Railroad, they spew bad history like smoke from an incinerator. I once spent a month researching the Underground Railroad, specifically in relation to some sites in Pennsylvania, for a feature article. The editor came back with suggestions from his background in extremely BAD history. I tried to explain, and even offered the alternate title "Everything You Know about the Underground Railroad is Wrong." He didn't get it, and my article was never published.
I will use some of my upcoming posts on this blog to highlight both types of history for you. Keep in mind that my goal is always presenting a good story with something for you to think about, not a dry history of names, places and dates.