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The Guilfordian

The student news site of Guilford College

The Guilfordian

The student news site of Guilford College

The Guilfordian

Didactic anecdotes confuse true history

What’s one thing Tom Cruise and Napoleon have in common? They’re both 5’7.” Tom Cruise is short (and crazy) compared to the average man; so was Napoleon, right?Wrong. Napoleon was taller than the average 18th- and 19th-century French man was; so much for that Napoleonic complex.

Don’t worry if you’ve been under the belief that Napoleon was a squat French man (he was actually Corsican), many people are. It’s such a common misconception that it landed at number 13 on a list of common historical misconceptions entitled, “The 20 Most Common Historical Myths.”

A history enthusiast, I was relieved when I knew the facts regarding many of the incidents on the list, such as Salem witches were never burned at the stake. Was John Proctor burnt alive in Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible?” Yet, this belief is proliferated.

Other myths mentioned are Sir Isaac Newton was hit on the head by an apple (he wasn’t), and the explorer Magellan circumnavigated the world first (while the ship he was captain of made it, Magellan died near the Philippines).

The list also highlights major problems regarding approaches towards history and education.

Those problems include teachers using sometimes-untrue anecdotes to help students remember things (such as Newton and the apple and Napoleon’s height), the ability of some to remain misinformed, knowing the bare minimum and applying major dates and information incorrectly.

Remaining misinformed reflects apathy and laziness towards receiving an education, especially when it comes to important information, such as the date that the United States gained independence or whether Magellan successfully sailed around the world.

The anecdote aspect is problematic because, while livening up class discussion, anecdotes can be taken at face value as truth, being turned into a “fact” and retold over and over, creating a terrible cycle where history becomes muddled and wrong.

The list of “20 Greatest Historical Myths” uses wit to break it to the public that their commonly held beliefs about history are wrong, an example, the list says of the belief King John signed the Magna Carta, “As well as being a rogue, John was probably illiterate.” King John merely stamped the royal seal on the document

Some of the non-facts tackled have been circulating as “truth” for a while; one such example is Marie Antoinette and the “Let them eat cake” incident. “Let them eat cake” is used as an anecdote to prove that Marie Antoinette was an uncaring monarch who was concerned more about her wardrobe than ensuring that the people of France ate.

The truth is that Marie Antoinette was 11 when she didn’t say that, but the belief that she made that statement has been around since the French Revolution due to proletariat anti-monarch propaganda.

Other common misconceptions on the list are distressing, like number six on the list. “The United States became independent on July 4, 1776.” There’s a difference between declaring independence and gaining independence.

The United States didn’t gain independence from England until September 3, 1783, when the British signed the Treaty of Paris and formally recognized the United States as a sovereign nation.

If the United States had formally gained independence on July 4, 1776, why did we bother fighting a seven-year-long war? The continental army had to fight for that Declaration of Independence.

There’s something wrong if so many people believe that the country they reside in gained independence on a date they didn’t; which further reflects student’s apathy towards education.

The list does its part to rectify this problem, illuminating misinterpretations both hilarious and grave, but most importantly approaching history in an entertaining way without distorting the facts.

And, as for Napoleon, people thought his nickname, “the little corporal,” was because he was short. Napoleon got that nickname because of his low rank in the army when he started out. Kind of makes you rethink the Napoleonic Complex.

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