Contemporary Societies & Their Reflection of Historical Events

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

Learn how the contemporary moment shapes the perspective on historical events. Explore ways different societies represent the past for a contemporary audience. Discover the effects of major twentieth-century events on society's historical narrative.

Writing the History of the Present

In many languages, 'history' and 'story' are closely related. The word reflects a society's store of cultural memory as well as the need to construct narratives about the past. Historical narratives differ from one society to another and also over time. A course in American History probably wouldn't cover South African apartheid. The way historians construct narratives about the past is problematized by a number of factors, including national pride, political regime, and the agenda on education.

Contemporary history may sound like an oxymoron. It arose out of the need, particularly in the twentieth-century, to study the recent past. Given the amount of information available in the Modern age, and the speed at which information travels, we have greater access to knowledge about the present and recent past than we ever have.

French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault once wrote that all history is a history of the present. With this phrase, he helped us recognize that remembering the past isn't about chronicling some long progression of events that led up to the present. Telling stories about the past is always narrated from the perspective of the present. In this way, we need to remember that history is always skewed to the politics of the contemporary moment.

In this lesson, we will look at the way contemporary history has been written from three different perspectives; American, African, and Asian.

American History: Science and Technology

Consider the massive changes that took place over the course of the twentieth-century. While the amount of information available has increased during the century, some argue that the rate of change has also increased.

The history of the twentieth-century has been shaped enormously by changes in the state of science and technology. Relativity theory and quantum physics provide new paradigms from which to understand how the universe works. Space travel and nuclear energy give us a different perspective on power and the size of the universe. The photograph known as 'Earthrise' memorializes the moment when Apollo 8 astronauts first saw the earth from the perspective of the moon in 1968. The photograph gives us a pictorial representation of just how minuscule our world is on the scale of the universe.

Earthrise, NASA, 1968
NASA Earthrise

These changes sparked an initiative to reframe how history was told. A recent trend in the writing of history comes from the science and technology initiative to strengthen the common core. Big History emphasizes astronomical events and biological evolution over those of human civilization, helping us recognize the scale on which the universe has expanded. From this perspective, human beings take up only a small part of the timeline.

Non-Western Perspectives: Apartheid and Communism

The general concept of Foucault's history of the present keys us into the ways that historical narratives change over time. As the word 'contemporary' highlights, the story of the past is necessarily written in the present moment, but it is also told from the relative position of the society in which the storyteller is embedded. Just as we cannot distance our perspective from the contemporary moment, it is equally as difficult to see the world from different cultural perspectives.

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