What Is Revisionist History?

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Malcolm Gladwell has a podcast called Revisionist History.

In general nomenclature, “revisionist history” usually has a pejorative term. But this not the case for historians. As the great Civil War historian James McPherson of Princeton once wrote, while serving as the president of the American Historical Association:

Revision is the lifeblood of historical scholarship. History is a continuing dialogue between the present and the past. Interpretations of the past are subject to change in response to new evidence, new questions asked of the evidence, new perspectives gained by the passage of time. . . .  The unending quest of historians for understanding the past—that is, “revisionism”—is what makes history vital and meaningful.

Gladwell is not a professional historian—and at times, his own desire for compelling narrative gets him into trouble for its simplicity—but being a historian has never been a necessary (or sufficient!) requirement for accurately interpreting history and revising interpretations of history.

His podcast on one of the most iconic photos of the Civil Rights era—pictured above—is an interesting half-hour listen. Gladwell plays audio from an interview with the man who was once the boy in the photo, and he interviews the widow of the police office and the sculptor who offered his own interpretation.

I won’t spoil it by revealing what Gladwell found out. And there may be more to the story than even Gladwell knows. But the upshots should not be all that surprising:

  • It’s always worth reexamining the details to see if a standard interpretation stands up to scrutiny.
  • When interpreting history, we must remain aware of our own presuppositions and expectations, seeking not to eliminate them altogether (which is impossible) but to see and account for any ways they might be distorting our analysis.
  • A picture may be worth a thousand words—but not all of those words may be accurate.
  • A narrative can be true, even if a popular example doesn’t illustrate it.
  • We should make a distinction between history (what happened) and our uses of history (what we seek to convey or change through our telling of history).
  • Actual history is usually more complicated and messy than the standard narratives, which are edited for length and emotional resonance.

With all of this said, it’s also important to remember that the goal is evidence-based accuracy, not a relativistic revisionism. We truly can know the past, though we see through a glass darkly.