The idea of looking at history as people making choices –i.e. history as choice — has gained some popularity in recent years as an alternative to conventional historical narratives. Conventional historical narratives, and especially history textbooks, generally approach history as a process of causation, a series of causes and effects in which one thing seems inevitably to lead to the next and in which human choice seems to have little play. In this view, people seem to be merely cogs in a big historical machine.
Promoters of history as choice, including myself, seek to humanize history by focusing on the role that people and their choices play. In emphasizing the drama of people debating options and making decisions, this approach makes history more interesting to students. In relating the decision-making processes of people in the past to the social problems and choices we face in the present, this approach also makes history more relevant.
But, as is often the case with intellectual and cultural developments when they are popularized, the idea of history as choice has been diluted and misdirected by some of its practitioners. In turn, there has been some backlash against the idea of history as choice from people who are reacting against the misconceptions of those practitioners. In particular, representatives of historically oppressed peoples have objected to history as choice as essentially a way of blaming the victims for their oppression. They complain that the implications of this approach are that since history is a result of people making choices, then oppressed peoples must have chosen to be oppressed or made the choices that led to their oppression. Oppressed peoples are, thereby, responsible for their own oppression.
The idea that the poor and oppressed are responsible for their own problems is an old one that dates back to ancient times and recurs periodically in history. In modern times, the idea resurfaced in the population theories of Thomas Malthus during the early nineteenth century and then in the Social Darwinian theories of Herbert Spencer and others during the late nineteenth century. The idea regained impetus during the late twentieth century in the United States largely through the work of Edward Banfield in his influential book The Unheavenly City Revisited (1974), and through his successors.
Blaming the poor and the oppressed for their problems is not the purpose of approaching history as choice. Properly understood, this method has the opposite effect. Approaching history as choice requires one to delineate the feasible options that people had within the circumstances that those people faced. Oppressed peoples do not have unlimited options and unlimited resources. Like everyone else, they have to work within the circumstances in which they find themselves. The key to approaching history as choice is to look at what people did with the options and the resources they had. This is a means of humanizing them and seeing the oppressed as not merely victims of their circumstances but also creators of culture and history within their circumstances.
One of the most amazing stories in American history is the way in which African-American slaves created a thriving culture within the restricted circumstances in which they lived. The moral of their story is not that African-Americans were to blame for their enslavement or that their oppression was somehow a good thing, but that they were able to make profound meaning and beauty in spite of their oppression. They made great choices within the limited range of feasible options and with the limited resources they had.
So, the problem is not with approaching history as choice but rather with failing to consider the context within which people made their choices. This has been the modus operandi of Social Darwinians and others who blame the poor and oppressed for being poor and oppressed. And this has been the implication, often unintended, of some of those who have been promoting history as choice. But this is not the method as it has been intended. The solution to this problem is not to abandon the method of history as choice but to apply it properly.