The Importance of History (and the humanities in general)

March 02 2017

Dear listservians-
History matters. Human beings make meaning out the seeming randomness of life—cause and effect, coherent narratives, ripples in a pond, the butterfly effect. Knowing the roots and aftershocks of events that appear to be (as the Doctor (Who, that is) noted) fixed points in time, we can draw comparisons and make more informed political and economic decisions in our daily lives. History augments our ability to more productively fumble through a world flush with forces well outside of our control. A strong understanding of historical forces enables us to seek out ways to be a part of those forces in order to become historical agents ourselves. Historical knowledge grounds individuals in something outside themselves, connecting them to “those who came before and those who're yet to come” (so said Eugene Hutz).
Lately, though, no single narrative exists when we invoke history in the public sphere—history is political, personal, or sometimes is just dismissed as unimportant for paying the bills each month—history as a luxury for a few rather than a narrative for all. The domination of the state of Texas in writing public school textbooks for the rest of the US means that the views of politicians there can influence what students learn across the country. Noting that slavery was an oppressive institution or that American Indians suffered under genocidal conditions become political footballs rather than ways to come to terms with how our country was constructed for some people over others. In this political charged atmosphere, the structures that produce professional historians, public colleges and universities, continue to scramble for funding and public support. The humanities in general (including history) losing out to other fields deemed a central part of the productive economy—business, finance, law enforcement, and STEM fields, all fields which receive funding from private sources. The current administration, with the backing of congress, seeks to eliminate the National Endowments for the arts and humanities, critical organizations for supporting public history and culture. History, art history, literature, cultural studies have become marked as less critical in modern society by some. Eventually, only the elite will have the time and freedom to study these fields and shape our narratives—those of us who aren't economically comfortable won't be able to put our stamp on historical narratives that helps to shape our understanding of the world. These academic provinces give human life narrative meaning—leaving them in the hands of only those who can afford to do so can lead to distortions and leave out the voices of too many people whose voices we desperately need to hear in a democratic society. A top-down historical understanding mangles the narratives in favor of the few at the expense of the many.
I urge you to support historians and public history especially. Advocate for a more indepth historical education. Go to history museums. Attend history talks in your local community and if possible financially support such initiatives. Take extra history courses in your college programs, even if you major in a completely different field and encourage your friends to do the same. Engage in those classes and get as much as you can out of them. Thank your professors for their time and hard work. Think about your own field of study historically—when did it evolve and why? Pick up non-fiction history books, especially if you have an interest in historical fiction (in books or on TV and film). Get the real story, not just the entertaining bits. Submit yourself to an oral history, either locally or through organizations like Storycorps, which seek to tell the stories of average Americans in the course of their lives. If you have children in public school (or even in private school), get involved not only in their STEM education (important in our modern technologically based world), but find out what they are learning in their history and English classes. Demand greater diversity in those courses and help them supplement when all they seem to be getting is a parade of dead, white men (though they shouldn't be excluded, either). Write your own history, too, and those of your family and community. Become an amateur historian and work with professional historians to do what you can to preserve the past and give your community, family, country, and your world greater meaning.

Thank you for your time!
Your friendly neighborhood historian

Mindy Clegg

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