Wednesday, April 15, 2015

History Relevancy Campaign: Part 6: Our Future

Note: This is part 6 in an 8 part series on the History Relevancy Campaign, based on an article titled "The Value of History: Seven Ways It is Relevant" from Public History News Vol. 35, No. 1.

Note: Any quotes designated by an asterisk (*) come from that article.

Special thanks to the NCPH as inspiration for this series.
From the campaign's call to action: We believe that history --- both knowledge of the past and the practice of researching and making sense of what happened in the past --- is critically important to the wellbeing of individuals, communities, and the future of our nation.*

Our Future- Engaged Citizens-History Helps People Craft Better Solutions.*

For all of the other rationales valuing history, this one is perhaps the closest to my heart. Historians struggle to explain why organizations should financially support historic scholarship. A significant part of this disconnect comes from a difference in understanding just what historians do. When historians clarify the products of their labor, we can make connections between disciplines and begin to show how history provides solutions to problems old and new.

What do historians do? What is History?

These questions have baffled scholars since the organization of formalized study of history. While the exercise has been primarily semantic and academic, not having a set response has left historians open to challenges from politicians, pundits, and other academics. These challenges have combined over time to constitute the threat historians and other humanities scholars now spend their days worrying over.

This confusion is partially narcissistic and partially realistic. Historians, like many other humanities scholars, see themselves as part of a specialized, professional discipline that is intrinsically valuable. While I believe that these considerations are true for the most part, this construction misses the point that we are humanists. That is, it is a historians job to not only study humanity, but to make that study useful for the progression of humankind. When historians recede into the ivory tower for disputes, we miss the opportunity to show off our most valuable asset, critical dialogue about the actions and repercussions of those who came before.

History isn't merely informational, it is critical and analytic. History is the presentation of discrete past events and the contextualization of these events into a complex narrative which is cognizant of the intricacies of the human experience (be they intellectual, cultural, political, or otherwise). Historians serve as analysts and narrators of this experience, much in the way that we rely upon physicists to tell us how atoms interact or engineers to explain why planes are capable of flight.

Unlike these other disciplines however, historians must create complex connections that cannot be tested in the controlled environment of a laboratory. Instead, historians use documents, artifacts, and statements from the past to rationalize why and how events occurred. Good historians rationalize in ways that produce models which can be tested against other historical moments, much in the way that scientific theorems and laws are vetted over time.  These models, and the evidence used in their construction are the source of historical discourse.

By studying and challenging historical models, students of history begin to see the complex relationships involved in human interaction. With that understanding, students can begin to compare, analogize, rework, and create new forms of understanding relationships. These forms enable students of history to identify highly abstracted connections that might be missed in ordinary pattern recognition. Those connections are valuable in any field that involves interacting with other people.

For example, it would benefit advertisers to know that during times of war, the American government took active steps to indoctrinate the public with an association between consumption and being a good American citizen (See, A Consumer's Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America by Lizabeth Cohen [Alfred A. Knopf, 2003] and "Scouting and Civil Defense in the Early Cold War, 1949-1963," MA Thesis by Jessica Herczeg-Konecny [Indiana University, Purdue University-Indianapolis, 2013] for information about this connection.). The modes of this indoctrination helped to form the basis for modern advertising techniques, and reiterate the need for ethical practice in government, business, and advertising.

Also, for example, it would benefit businesses to know that historians employ ledgers, inventories, and time cards as a way to fill in gaps when diaries and correspondence don't exist. I doubt that many clerks filling out spreadsheets know that the same paperwork they use today was used to understand the everyday lives of people in early America (See, Betsy Ross and the Making of America by Marla Miller [ Macmillan, 2010]). Ledgers and spreadsheets, other than being electronic, have changed little in the intervening centuries. Thus, forms and tables of the past can provide functional models for current business needs as well as helping unscrupulous individuals realize that the record of their transactions carry weight beyond their tenure.

These examples are but a dabbling into the diverse lenses of analysis historians employ to understand the past. History helps people to craft better solutions to problems by letting them see how previous generations have attempted to solve their own predicaments. More importantly, historians provide an understanding of how people have attempted to adapt to their world. Through that mechanism, problem solvers can eliminate extraneous solutions, avoid pitfalls, and think outside the box.

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