Friday, April 14, 2017

History Relevance Campaign: Part 8: Our Future- Legacy

Note: This is part 8 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. The new website for the History Relevance Campaign is located here.

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 well being of individuals, communities, and the future of our nation.*

Our Future- Legacy- History, saved and preserved, is the foundation for future generations.*

History is the mechanism by which we can connect to our communities, families, employers, schools, and world. We do so through traditions (shared memories and activities which foster feelings of togetherness), practices (formal and habitual), and values (moral, legal, political, and theological). These components help us to find consensus, evaluate decisions, and plan for our futures.

 Every component of the Relevance Campaign leans on this concept, and, in fact, our entire social fabric is predicated on the concept of a democratic form of governance which looks forward to future generations. As a society, we may address contemporary issues, but those discussions are intended not only for immediate application, but with the concept that order and guidance are on-going concerns. Nihilism, hedonism, and anarchy are principally concerned with their proponents' wish for immediacy and current benefits. Thus history and traditions can serve as bulwarks to maintain resources, society, and benefits for the future (though they can, and have been at times, skewed for questionable purposes).

A part of this is maintaining historical documents, objects, and places. These are the components with which we assess and connect to history. By denigrating, destroying, or neglecting historical sources, places, and materials, we undercut the very object of which our society is aiming to improve, namely, our future.

When many people speak of legacy, they think in terms of individual legacy, be it financial (inheritable), legal (precedence), or popular (think about Presidential Libraries). I would like you to entertain the concept that legacy can be something more.

Legacy can be instead the stories and values you wish to pass on to your children (or nieces/nephews, students, neighbors, whomever). Think about how you communicate those to others. Do you do it through telling tales around the campfire or dinner table? Maybe through your Sunday School? Perhaps you've written a diary to remind yourself at a future date? Do you take pictures to capture the world around you? Maybe film a family function? Collect antiques or trinkets from vacations? Each of these is an act of preserving history. You're saving memories, stories, objects, and other things from one part of your life for a later part of your life. Seldom do we do so for their practical or financial value (no one's paying you for your family photos, at least not for all of them). Oftentimes, people refer to this as "sentimental" value. While the feelings that these objects and memories invoke are important, they only derive their importance from the inherent recognition that these experiences have helped to shape the person you are today.

Now lets expand our lens. According to U.N. estimates in 2011 (most recent available), there were roughly 7 billion people alive on this Earth at one time. That means there were 7 billion individual life stories with innumerable objects and memories. None of these life stories occurs in a vacuum, each one intersects with others in a web of humanity that links the past to the present to the future. The largest portion of these stories go unrecorded and unsaved. Some pass on as memories and stories to future generations, as do some of the physical artifacts of these existences. Some, such as homes, often pass down through generations of families. A very small number of physical objects, and even fewer memories (in the form of oral histories) end up in libraries, archives, historical societies, and museums. These are what most people think of as "history" and "historical stuff." You most likely have at some point in your life gone to peer through glass at these types of things. They seem very rigid, formal, and distant. In reality, most of these things are the everyday stuff that people created, worked with, held on to, and eventually discarded (either by throwing away, gifting, bequeathing, or selling). If they were discarded, why are they important?

It is through these objects and memories that we can preserve a combined memory as a society. Obviously, not all of the things and memories that each individual produces will survive. If it did, there would be no room (intellectual or physical) for anything else to exist. Instead, we distill down the objects and memories of humanity into collections which are physical (archives, museums, and the like), spacial (homes and buildings), or intellectual (books, websites, newspapers, recordings, etc). By saving these distillations and protecting them, we leave open the opportunity to study the collective stories of the billions who came before to seek guidance, inspiration, and reassurance as we make decisions about our collective future. We can look to painful memories to know what not to do. We can look to happy memories to suggest ways to improve things. We can look at troubled times to see how society dealt with them and to put our problems in perspective.

We can only do this reflection though if we maintain and collect these shared and distilled memories. There are those who seek to destroy these resources through attrition, neglect, or outright attack. It should be our own goal to push against these trends.

You though can do your own part to prevent the loss of our history. How? Write, talk, build, create, and think. Speak out about the importance of history to those around you. Support the arts and humanities in your community and let those who make financial decisions for you in local, state, and national government know that you value these resources. Learn, read, and share stories and memories about your family and your hometowns. Instill a value of humanity in those that you influence. Teach family recipes and write them down (I know this one's probably the most contentious thing I have said). Take care of your home to make it last. Protect your family photos by storing them responsibly (preferably with a note about when and where they were taken). Most of all though, don't just wander through your life, share it with others in meaningful ways. If we each do our part to save just one story from another, that's 7 billion pieces of history to help the future.

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