Timelines and History

Time: a concept that, if I’m being honest, I personally try not to think about too much. Beyond telling what time it is and how long it takes to do something, time is a complicated and complex concept. Our conception of time is completely constructed and subjective. Hank Green made a video about the New Year that really exhibited just how arbitrary our time-keeping system is to me. In it he discusses how our calendar has changed throughout history. It is mind-boggling to say the least. When it comes to how we conceptualize time as a society, we tend to think of it as inflexible; however, in Green’s video, he points out just a few of the ways time has shifted throughout history. We’ve added months, created the idea of Leap Years, etc. I’ve shared the video here before, but I found myself thinking about it again this week as we dived into thinking about time.

In Daniel Rosenburg’s article “The Trouble with Timelines,” he discusses how timelines were created to simplify how we study a historical event. A timeline can be helpful in discovering what events led up to a significant historical moment, but Rosenburg questions how helpful a timeline can really be. History has never occurred in a line. A historical event does not just occur because of the events that happened right before it on a timeline. History is just as complicated and complex as time itself. Timelines promise simplicity, but can simplicity really apply to history? I feel pretty confident in saying of course not.

It is also not always possible for every moment to be included in a timeline. When looking at history, there can be hundreds of events and moments that culminate to one major event. So when a timeline is created, the creator may be called upon to leave out some events. How does he or she make that decision? How do they decided which events to include and which events to leave out? The importance of each event can be subjective, and a creator can decide to leave out parts of history that do not add to the argument he or she is trying to make. I think that it is easy for people to believe that a timeline is a fact and to trust it, but Rosenburg’s arguments about the flaws in timelines illustrates just how important it is for people to view timelines critically. We shouldn’t just blindly trust any timeline we stumble upon.

Timelines might have been created to simplify how we think of history, but that shouldn’t be how we think of them now. History and time cannot be thought of as simple or linear. There are so many variables that affect historical events that they cannot possibly be represented on a single linear timeline. The nuances of each event can be lost in the “big” events. Timelines have their place in studying history, but the flaws that Rosenburg addresses should affect how they are used. Timelines are not definitive and objective; therefore, they should be read and explored critically. The reader of the timeline should constantly be questioning why certain points are included, if there are any points left out, what argument is the creator trying to make, etc. As long as these questions are kept in mind, timelines can be useful for advancing studies in many disciplines.


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