More on the Usefulness of History

 historiography  Comments Off on More on the Usefulness of History
Sep 172011
I know I’m the only one who thinks about the usefulness of history anymore.  Academics study the thing for itself — knowledge for the sake of knowledge.  Laypersons are interested in history strictly for the entertainment value, and political scientists try to make history a primer for politics.  All due respect to George Santayana, circumstances from the past do not perfectly repeat themselves so that we get a second chance to retry the same problem (though some rough lessons can apply).  Even if historical knowledge gave us hindsight for practical application in the present, the frequency of its usefulness would be limited at best.  None of this is to say that history offers us no practical benefit.  I am always harping on how it gives consciousness to our lives and informs our choices.  Since that isn’t “hard” science with obvious application, some might resist embracing the notion that this makes history useful;  however, there is a concrete way of applying this consciousness that is an often ignored aid.
Happily, we have come to a point in human development where we have informed understanding of society and its function.  We no longer believe that events are caused by spirits and sprites or that divinity resides in the whims of the king and they are therefore to be honored.  We understand today about the structure and function of our society and our ability to shape our communities.  This is to say, we can exercise conscious management of our societies through planning and effective legislation, enforcement, and cooperation.  We see now that while our world may be a Ship of Fools, it still has a rudder.  Even such fools can learn to maneuver the boat, and our choices are the rudder that directs us.  You can’t control life, but we can manage our responses to it.
Friedrich Nietzsche noted more than a hundred and thirty years ago that history can and should serve the purpose of living life. Humans can use it to inform our choices — particularly if we are doing “critical history” or writing about the past in ways that undermine the worship of it.  Then, we are able to leave off and reject that past in search for something better.  Or, as Maya Angelou says:  “When you know better, you do better.”  History gives us knowledge from which we can learn and use to build a new future.  Since we can choose what we want our society to look like and what values we want it to reflect, we can look at the past and see what we have done before that helped in reaching our goals and what has not (and therefore needs to be abandoned).
So, firstly, we must use history to remind us of why we made these choices.  What was the impetus for doing this or that?  For example, the social and health effects of industrialization on workers were what led to passage of workers’ compensation programs and safety regulations.  Studying this development makes clear why there was a need and what the chosen response was.  Next, we look at how this solution operated in practice — what is the history of how that choice or action developed?  We want to see what we did.  This will of course allow us to avoid repeating errors as Santayana suggests, but it also lets us judge generally on how we are doing at achieving our ends.  Have we accomplished what we had hoped?  What is working?  What good have we done?  What isn’t working and what effect has this failure had?  Once we see how the thing developed and judged it, we can then make choices for the future.  We can reaffirm or redraft our goals.  We can adjust our efforts to respond better in areas in which we have not succeeded.  Or, we can expand our response or reduce it based on the effectiveness of past actions, need, and interest.
In short, history provides use a means for social analysis.   We can use it to make a grade card for ourselves.  As a community, we can assess our performance and make choices based on this for our future.  In this sense, history is a very real and obvious tool — and it has a substantive rather than just ethereal value.  Knowing this, failure to make use of our history indicates not just ignorance or foolishness but also that we are people who fail to try to exercise any will on our society and are content to lead lives lacking consciousness — in which case, we do no better at shaping our world than the unlearned or superstitious who came before us.
 Posted by at 10:48 am
Sep 042011
I read a lot of articles, blog postings, and opinion pieces — I like things that make me think.  Generally, I would say, there isn’t a lot in the papers or online that comes close to deeply affecting me though.  Much of it is interesting and informative;  some of it gets me worked up.  Frequently, it even makes me feel more dejected about where I live and further drains my hope for the future.  The stories, themselves, however, aren’t generally….moving, is I guess the word for it.  There’s a lot of drama to them, but they aren’t that important, in that in twenty years they won’t mean much anymore.  They are part of the temporary din — filler for my days and information on the fleeting doings of the world.  Really, though, in my lifetime, Michele Bachmann’s crazy eyes and GOP infighting will come to matter very little.  We may be crippled by political gridlock now, but this will pass.  We will survive it and then it will just be the Era of Bad Feelings.  And all the words about it — all the thousands and millions of words — will be as little important as the patriotic pandering of the day.
But this week, I read what is one of the most important pieces I have read in I can’t remember how long.  A local media outlet, This Land, published an edition that examines the historical cloud that hangs over the City of Tulsa.  One of the pieces incriminated a notable city founder.  Another piece gave history to the real estate over which important legal and political battles were fought.  And, my God! the cover was black-and-white rendering of Klansmen as figures of power and ghosts of our past.  It is absolutely tragic if everyone in Tulsa does not read what the publication has to say.  It is necessary that everyone know this truth and understand how that legacy still impacts choices the citizenry makes today.  This is history at it’s most powerful and important.  This is not knowledge for the sake of knowledge or antiquarianism.  This is so very much more real to people’s lives.
One of the most important reasons that it is necessary reading, though, is so that we can just finally put an end to the deceit we have lived with for so many years.  I grew up here, and I knew then that it was a segregated city, if by practice instead of by law (anymore).  Ironically divided North and South, the races mingled little here, and barbecue dinners were the only desegregated hour of most people’s week.  (Though even then, blacks and whites often differed in their preferred haunts.  Black Tulsans patronizing Elmer’s and whites eating at Elliot’s — a mere couple of blocks from each other on opposite sides of the street.)  No one talked about the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 back then, but I learned about it in school from an unconventional teacher — and believe me, it was not part of our Board-approved curriculum or included in our Oklahoma history textbook.  It is mandatory to take Oklahoma history in school here, but I didn’t learn there about the Klan or lynchings or even much about segregation, which was established in our Constitution — which means I didn’t really learn Oklahoma history.  You aren’t to talk about such things.  That’s long past, and there is no sense in dwelling on the negative.  When you fail to talk about it though, it festers.  The legacy, the lasting impact of the event — these don’t go away, and you make even more bad choices in trying to ignore it.  How can we talk about revitalizing downtown and boostering the Brady Arts District if we don’t talk about Tate Brady’s role in the riot and his membership — and that of so many white Tulsans and all of our political and social leaders of that time — in the Klan and how the area that is being built over was the site of a race war?  How can north Tulsa and south Tulsa work together to build a better place when there is lasting resentment and hostility between us?  How can we move past the battles over funding better streets and access to medical care and even healthy food (for a long time, there wasn’t even a grocery store on the north side of town), if we don’t acknowledge that the segregation of our past and it’s lingering effects have created  a disparate experience depending upon in which side of town you reside (and, largely, that is still related to the color of your skin)?  How can we try to build a community with a decent quality of life for all its citizens, if we don’t recognize that violence was a tool to suppress political dissent in our past and that set a standard of intolerance toward unions and leftists that still exists today?  You cannot fix what you do not recognize as broken, and painting over mold doesn’t make it go away — or keep you from getting sick from the allergens and toxic substances it produces.
There are now a handful of academic books about the race riot.  Few of them do it in the way that the articles in This Land covered it (read it online here) — that is, make it relevant and necessary for now — and I mean for the citizens of Tulsa now.  These are not merely intellectual examinations for sharing with other academics.  They are together a call to recognize and repudiate the past.  First, let’s talk about what happened publicly — and name the names of those involved.  Let’s challenge the existing hierarchy that benefits still from the things done by their fathers and grandfathers — founders like Brady and Eugene Lorton and T.D. Evans.  Then, as this edition does, let’s begin to repudiate that past.  Let’s remove Mr. Brady’s name as an honorific for the downtown arts district and instead recognize those who stood up to the violence by giving civic awards in their names and find ways to assure that our new revitalization projects don’t just pave over the memories of these spaces with concrete and commercial projects that ignore the history literally under foot there (by installing art and other means of commemoration that honor the past and help with healing for the future).  If this paper/media outlet gets us to undertake these efforts, it is easily the most important thing that I have read in years.  It is history (not academic or professional) with the power to awaken and spur change.  That is the noblest purpose any history can have and it matters.
 Posted by at 12:58 pm