Randolph G. Adams Director of the Clements Library, J. Kevin Graffagnino, comments on the importance of history in our society.
I speak at a lot of historical events, where I’m preaching to the choir. However, I also speak to civic and business groups like Rotary, Kiwanis, and the Chamber of Commerce. There I face audiences that include “temporal provincials” as described in Michael Crichton’s 1999 novel Timeline. “Temporal provincials,” Crichton wrote, “were convinced that the present was the only time that mattered, and that anything that had occurred earlier could be safely ignored. . . . Studying history was as pointless as learning Morse code, or how to drive a horse-drawn carriage.”
In Timeline these “history is bunk” characters appear and then disappear. In real life, they’re not so obliging. Certain that history is useless, they’re disdainful of any effort to preserve our heritage. That can hamper the work of all our cultural heritage organizations; it can hinder the teaching of history in our schools; and it can undermine any attempt to bring us together around our shared past.
With that in mind, I offer three ways in which history should matter to everyone:
1. Individual Identity
Every person has a sense of self substantially based on the past. The more you know about your family, the more you paid attention to the stories your elders told, the more you can recall about the context in which you grew and matured, the better sense you have of who you are. Lacking any memory of your own past or any awareness of your family’s traditions, you’re adrift for saying, “This is who I am, what I stand for, the things I value and cherish.” Many people realize this only in middle age; it takes most of us decades to appreciate roots make us complete. A scene early in John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath highlights this need. The Joad family and their neighbors are leaving their Dust Bowl farms for California, and one of them looks back at their house being bulldozed and says, “Without our history, how will we know it’s us?” If you don’t know your personal and family history, you’re missing something important—and if you do, it solidifies your perspectives, tells you who you are, brings you wisdom about your place in the universe, and it changes your life in powerful, lasting ways.
2. Community Identity
Almost everyone has a home town, a place we know best and identify with most. For the majority, identity is statewide as well: you think of yourself as being from Michigan, Arizona, Oregon, or (if you’re lucky) Vermont. Extend the circle, and most of us would add a national descriptor. Whether the level is micro or macro, each of “our” places has distinctive characteristics we value, and many of those are historical. Kalamazoo is different from Mackinac Island in part because of how each began and developed, and knowing those details can help residents find common ground and reason to be proud. For Michigan, that pride has deep roots: the state’s role in the Underground Railroad and the Civil War; Michiganians as leaders in business, industry and labor; generations of national public figures; the music of Motown; our great athletes and sports teams; bestselling creative writers who’ve called Michigan home; and so on. When newcomers show an interest in the background of their new homes or join local historical organizations, that’s a bridge connecting them to lifelong residents. At its best, studied together with open minds and sharing spirits, history brings people together.
3. Collective Purpose
I know that some people can absorb Points 1 and 2 and still say, “Phooey. History is boring and stupid.” My response is, “Do you care about the world your children and grandchildren will inherit from us?” The answers typically are some version of, “Certainly I do. What kind of person do you think I am?” That launches me into my third reason, that a knowledge of our past can and should play a role in helping us build a better future.
Most challenges we face and most issues we try to resolve have historical backgrounds, and knowing those aspects of what we’re debating is important in our search for strategies and solutions. One term for this “we’re about the past, but with an eye on the future” approach is “applied history,” and it goes back to the Progressive Era of the early twentieth century. In the 1910s-30s American history leaders tried to ensure that history had a place at the table for public discussions. Their argument was that whether it was transportation, public health, education, the environment, or anything else, knowing the historical precedents and how previous generations reacted would foster better choices.
Unfortunately, a century after those “get history into the conversation” efforts, we’ve forgotten the lessons. It’s discouraging to see government leaders today who have no knowledge of history and no inkling that it might be valuable for them to learn some. It’s sad as well how to hear public officials proclaim, “As —– (George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, etc.) said on this subject,” and then get it wrong. Simply put, if you don’t know the history and you don’t include those who do in the dialogue, you’re not going to craft effective programs, legislation and initiatives for the bright future we all want.
So, in those three ways—changing individual lives and giving us a sense of personal identity; providing a foundation for community cohesion; and contributing to a better future at every level—history does matter to all of us. I’d guess that most people who read the Clements Library blog already agree, but getting the temporal provincials to see the light is a daunting challenge. Get to work, my friends, get to work.
J. Kevin Graffagnino
Randolph G. Adams Director of the Clements Library
* * *
The Clements Library serves as a beacon of inspiration, a place where it’s possible to physically encounter and examine evidence of the past.
Invite your friends and neighbors to one of our lectures, tours, or exhibits and help them find their connection to history.