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How much lies should adults tell to children? For most parents, the answer is rarely “not at all.” Rather, it’s a question they—and everyone around them—must address on a case-by-case basis.

Some of these lies have to do with metaphysics (e.g., what happens after we die), and others have to do with the past. Many parents provide abridged accounts of their encounters, at least at first.

These family lies are part of the reason family vacations so often end in disaster: varying degrees of candor about what really happened to the pet hamster and how the baby was born can sometimes erupt in unexpected tensions during a shared vacation, even in the biggest in the family. villa.

They are also micro-versions of how each institution—be it a small business, a national institution, or an entire country—debates its own history.

With the exception of authoritarian states, most countries do not actively lie about their past, but they do tend to engage in inaction. When Rishi Sunak describes his rise as part of a wider story of British tolerance and decency, nothing he says is untrue, but he also leaves out something about imperial greed and postwar labour. The more unflattering part of the market is short of supply. When the Narendra Modi government uses the word ‘Bharat’, they are not inventing a new history: they are downplaying an equally real alternative to India.

These crimes of omission share the same intention: to seduce modern audiences by presenting a flattering narrative about the past. Whether it’s Ron DeSantis trying to revise the depiction of the slave trade in Florida school curriculum or the New York Times trying to reframe American history in the 1619 Project, what they’re trying to do is change our understanding of what’s going on. A view of what’s happening now—and what’s to come.

When Sunak talks about Britain’s proud liberal past, he believes the country he leads is functioning well and sticking to the status quo (i.e. himself) is a good move. When Modi renames institutions and places to downplay India’s Muslim and British past, he believes that India’s future should be Indian. When DeSantis seeks to remove “wokery” from the curriculum, he seeks to end today’s debate over what America’s past means for its future.

What we don’t know is what, if any, real impact this actually had on other people. We have some ideas that our understanding of national and international history shapes our views of the present and the future, but we don’t really understand what the effects are, except in extreme cases.

What we can say with a lot of confidence is that if you locked your children in a basement and told them the world was going to end in ten years, you would create a very strange child. We know that if you control the curriculum and the media while limiting the right to protest, you can reshape a country’s view of itself. But we don’t know much about how the popular history of a democracy, inevitably subject to controversy, affects a country’s sense of self and future actions.

Instinctively, nations, organizations, and families do best to create sanitized and flattering narratives of their pasts. After all, if a business’s goal is to encourage good behavior in the future, the benefits of talking to new hires about its zero-tolerance stance on sexual harassment or expense fraud may seem greater than disclosing all of its past mistakes during onboarding week. There are not many successful politicians who speak unabashedly about their country’s past when running for office.

The same unanswerable questions are at the heart of debates about popular history in every country—about what is said in and around public institutions and what is taught in schools. This puts real historians in a difficult position: their job, as a matter of course, does not involve classifying a person or a country’s past actions as good or bad in some horrific accounting exercise. Nor should it emphasize only the good parts of a country or organization’s past.

As a result, academic historians – such as those who produce the National Trust’s property inventories of which properties have links to the slave trade – are often caught in the crossfire. Politicians want to present a sanitized version of the past that historians deride in order to morally judge it (which they don’t), while others criticize history for failing to prevent the horrific mistakes of the present. But the really important value of history is something entirely different: the joy of discovering things.

stephen.bush@ft.com

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