Reconsidering Who's Included In History
“But you can’t change history!” said my frustrated colleague at the Computer History Museum the other day.
We were choosing historical figures to teach concepts in computing technology to middle school students on a gaming platform. I was advocating, instead, for fictional characters who were women and people of color to help students feel that anyone can make an important technological contribution. My colleague argued that generally women and people of color had not made key breakthroughs in computing history. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but they basically were all white males.”
He’s not exactly wrong. But maybe we shouldn’t just accept that “history is written by the winners” and instead challenge ourselves to consider that if we do, we are perpetuating a status quo that benefits the white, European men that put it in place centuries ago to maintain their power. That system valorizes genius heroes in standard narratives where they single-handedly overcome challenges while beating out competitors.
But what if we included the partners (personal and professional), teams of colleagues, and social systems that enabled those people to make their mark—and prevented others from having the same opportunities? What if, instead of holding up Thomas Jefferson as the writer of the Declaration of Independence, we remembered to acknowledge the contributions of the rest of the drafting committee, not only Ben Franklin and John Adams (we know them already), but also Roger Sherman of Connecticut and Robert Livingston of New York. Examining early drafts demonstrates the key input they contributed to a foundational document.
Better yet, what if we acknowledged the enslaved people whose labor created the wealth that allowed Jefferson to pursue his education and, released from the obligation to work, gave him the time to pursue his intellectual endeavors? What if we also honored emotional connections and relationship networks? What if we flipped the proportion of attention we give to technologists and engineers (and sports figures and Hollywood stars) with the work of humanitarians and educators?
How might that inspire our children
Heidi Hackford explores how past and present intersect.