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Notes of understanding

January 25, 2010

Notes of understanding

By Denise Scammon

In What is History?, author Edward Hallett Carr explains that the answer to the title question will be different for each person depending on whether or not they believe that history is solely based on facts, solely based on a historian’s interpretation of the facts, or a combination of the two – facts and interpretation. If recording history was merely the recording of facts, then history would be objective. When a historian interprets history, he/she selects historical facts, places them in a certain order, and uses them in a context based on his judgments – that is subjective. In the selection of facts to include in historical accounts, it is noted that not all facts about the past are included as historical facts. It is an impossible feat. For example, written ancient and medieval historical accounts are the only evidence of the history of those eras as there are no eye witnesses who can add to the historical accounts today. Thus, if the recorders of ancient historical facts did not record something or some event at the time it occurred, then centuries later, those facts remain unknown to later generations. Historians use historical facts as “the backbone of history” and in addition, use information from other “sciences of history: archaeology, epigraphy, numismatics, chronology, etc.” to arrive at a thorough interpretation.

In Quebec and the American Dream, by Eric Chodos and Robert Hamovitch, the authors explain the two sides of living as an immigrant in America – from the immigrant’s and the American’s viewpoints. Three viewpoints are explained: assimilation, nativism and cultural pluralism. A play titled “The Melting Pot” lent its title to describe America and her immigrant population. For years, Americans assumed that immigrants to America knew America was a superior country and that immigrants wanted to change their ways of living to become like native Americans. But during the war in Europe in 1914, Americans became aware of the large German population in this country and realized that assimilation was not working. Immigrants “remained hyphenated even after Americanization efforts.” In addition to the immigrant German population, the French Canadians, Spanish-speaking groups, Creoles and Cajuns, Poles, Czechs, and other immigrant groups believed in cultural pluralism. Chodos and Hamovitch state that the French Canadians believed in the “value of their language and religion” and were “determined to retain them.” After Americans became aware of the lack of assimilation on the part of the immigrant, “repressive measures were directed at non-English speaking Americans.” Congress imposed immigration restrictions and the quota system was established in 1924. Horace Kallen is quoted as stating that some believed cultural pluralism was a “freedom guaranteed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution … ‘equal’ meant the right to be different.’” Those who believed in nativism included the anti-Catholicism groups, anti-radicalism believers, and those who believed in racial purity. The first two groups wanted to “keep the U.S. Safe from foreign ideologies and conspiracies” and the third group believed in the superiority of some races over others. Immigrants were not entirely unwelcome in the U.S. because the Declaration of Independence and other documents and sentiments present America as a land which offers humanitarian aid and equality to all. Also, immigrants were an economic boon to the U.S. in its early days “providing pioneers for the frontier … and low-cost labor.” Franco-Americans were fortunate in that they did not appear to be considered as real immigrants by Americans, since the Franco-Americans had always been in this country and the border between Canada and the U.S. was just “an imaginary line.”

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