Jeff Riggenbach begins his book by explaining the importance of and the need for revisionism. His writing is focused on American history and the unique problems it faces. At the heart of what makes American history textbooks so important is their perpetuating influence. Riggenbach asserts, “What Americans know and understand about the history of the society in which they live will determine the degree of their willingness to honor and preserve its ideals and traditions.” This can be applied to history more broadly and to many countries and their own societies. Riggenbach continues his introduction by briefly outlining various challenges and changes to traditional narratives. Riggenbach ends the Preface by outlining the clear purpose of the book; his objective is to answer some hard questions about the discipline of history.
The first chapter, Objectivity in History, aims to address the fundamental question of objectivity’s influence and place in historical pursuit. Riggenbach explains the challenges historians face such as the inherent problem that not all of the past is still here, he writes, “The majority is indeed past, gone, inaccessible.” This automatically limits the historian and creates the practical need for thoughtful study of historical evidence. The facts that are accessible bring their own limitations and unreliability. Riggenbach acknowledges the limitations of facts of history but writes, “…we have what we have, and whatever its deficiencies we must make do with it.” With this comes significant responsibilities of the historian to take care in his/her work and be forthright about limitations.
I enjoyed the beginning of “Why American History Is Not What They Say” and found Riggenbach’s writing concise and easy to read. He pulls in engaging examples/quotes from historians and a variety of sources. His approach to historiography is straight forward while not being boring or tedious. I found his writing to be approachable for anyone but particularly interesting for a student of history. He seems to aim to challenge historian’s traditions and norms but not in a deprecating or insulting way. Riggenbach instead provides sensible analysis fully based on fact and reason and takes it further by providing solutions to various areas of historical study that need revision. This reading helped me further my understanding of revisionism and its noble aims.
Word Count: 388
Riggenbach, Jeff. “Why American History Is Not What They Say” Creative Commons, 2009. Pp 15-26.