10 Popular History Myths (You Probably Believe)

What are historical misconceptions, if not propaganda, mythmaking and lies persevering?

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Jacques-Louis David, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

History is kind of funny.

People have an odd relationship with the past. The further away we get, two things happen. First, historians and scholars can start to piece together a more objective, multilayered picture of history by moving away from the event or time period in question. Recency bias starts to subside, and historians move outside of the archives to uncover the stories of those traditionally excluded from mainstream historical narratives.

Second, and standing in stark contrast, general audiences and passive consumers of historical information - the layperson, that is - start to forget the truth and the nuance behind the history, instead embracing the myth. As the past becomes more distant, people begin to romanticize it, and out come the rose-tinted glasses. These myths can become so pervasive and so beloved that they threaten to replace actual history, and in some cases, they more or less have.

What is the truth about ancient Sparta? What really happened to spark the American Civil War? How are we misremembering Vikings, the Wild West, the samurai, etc.? What myths do we live with today?

Here are just a few popular misconceptions that you probably believe, and hey, there's no shame in that. Some are wildly popular in certain social and cultural circles. Others have basically been canonized in the broader perception of history, even counting some self-proclaimed history buffs among their believers...

10. Einstein Failed Math

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Wikipedia

Whenever a child is struggling with a given subject in school, it's perfectly reasonable to want to motivate them to do their best. How better to motivate a child who's having a hard time academically than to tell them that the most famous genius in history - Albert Einstein - flunked out of math as a kid?

"Listen here, little Timmy... Albert Einstein was a genius, but did you know he failed math? He struggled, but look what he accomplished. You can do it. Just keep studying, and you'll be okay." Sounds helpful, right? Well, it'd be more helpful if it wasn't a complete and total bald-faced lie.

The truth is that Einstein's math scores were even better than his science scores. He wasn't a fan of school early on, but that hardly equates to him being bad at it. He did fail an entrance exam for Zurich Polytechnic, but only because it was in French, and he, well... he wasn't French. He did outstanding on the math section, though, and by age 11, he was reading college-level physics textbooks.

This is a low-stakes misconception, and it's well-meaning. Still, it's a misconception, all the same.

Contributor

Dustin is your friendly neighborhood history M.A., nerd culture enthusiast, and professional wise-ass. Some of his favorite pastimes include writing, philosophizing, and antagonizing stupid people.