On Getting It Wrong

I don’t always get it right…and when I’m wrong, I own it.

I don’t always get it right…and when I’m wrong, I own it.

One lesson I try to impart in the classroom is this: a hallmark of intellectual honesty and integrity is acknowledging that you might be wrong. I try to lead by example and I am quite open about letting my kids know that I have revised my thinking numerous times when presented with compelling arguments supported by evidence. I suppose it would be easy just to dig in and refuse to budge when somebody challenges your way of thinking. But, as I tell my students, wouldn’t it be more in the spirit of good faith to at least hear what others had to say…perhaps even try to seek common ground? I mean hell, why close your mind when you might learn something, right? This holds true not only for historical reasoning, analysis, and conclusions, but for methodology and the use of resources as well.

Case in point: many of you know how I used to come down pretty hard on folks who enhanced historical photographs and film by adding color or other technological tricks to make historical images appear more realistic. I never thought that the artists who did this work were being malicious or trying to intentionally distort history. But I did think of the work as tantamount to tampering with evidence…adding to historical documents to convey a sense of realism and relatability where before there had been distance, mystery, and merit on their own terms. I mean, I would never “enhance” a letter or diary to make it more relatable to a modern reader.

But I slowly came around to the virtues of technological enhancements after carefully reviewing the work of several artists including Matt Loughrey, who I met on Instagram, and Marina Amaral, who is the illustrator for The Colour of Time. The public’s response to these artists’ work suggested to me that they could encourage peoples’ interest in history in ways that I could not. Their social media followers were overwhelmingly enthusiastic and engaged and it seemed very clear that their work inspired members of the public to dig further into the history…beyond just admiring the images as pieces of art.

George Bernard Shaw - colorized from a glass negative…the beautiful work of  Mr. Matt Loughrey

George Bernard Shaw - colorized from a glass negative…the beautiful work of Mr. Matt Loughrey

I recently used some of Matt’s images in my advanced class on the Civil War and Reconstruction and the kids were very enthusiastic in terms of how the images brought the history to life. Ultimately the images helped my students better understand that these historical actors were real flesh-and-blood people, and that the visual enhancements really added a sense of humanity to the narrative. I spoke with Matt a few weeks ago on the podcast and he noted that he had hoped to inspire exactly that reaction.

So in the end, I will admit that I was wrong to be so harshly critical of those who used technology to enhance historical images. And I can do so because I am able to open my mind to new ideas. These artists get people engaged, they open the doors to historical events in new and exciting ways, and they get people interested in history. Seems fine and dandy to me.

With compliments,

Keith