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I wrote the following interview
about a fictional character
around 25 years ago
Click now to view a PDF version online and/or to download the PDF file.
I wrote the following interview
My wide ranging series of fictitious interviews included this section on time. This interview took place on the second story of an old church in Durham, North Carolina that had been scheduled for demolition but had been saved and restored. The time of this interview was 1989.
What he said specifically was that history was no longer relevant to the modern world. To quote Dr. Donald, "What undergraduates want from their history teachers is an understanding of how the American past relates to the present and the future. But if I teach what I believe to be the truth, I can only share with them my sense of the irrelevance of history and of the bleakness of the new era we are entering."
There may be a speck of truth in what he said, i.e. history probably cannot solve today's problems. But he has thrown the baby out with the bath water. History is our point of reference. It is how we got to the point we are at today. It is, in fact, who we are - but I am getting ahead of myself.
Look through the windows, here, out at the city. I have taken a sixty year old map of Durham and have driven through the town as though only the old roads existed. I saw what I thought I would see -- mostly old homes, old factories, old trees, old neighborhoods. When I followed the old map exclusively, I traveled the city as if it were old. It took a newer map to show me the newer parts. So I know that the older map, which is out of date, has meaning for me today.
And of course this is true for most towns unless there has been wholesale renovation. But even then I find it's very rare that a road, once built, is ever destroyed. A majority of the roads on the old maps still exist today. You can, for example, still follow the Blue Highways marked on the Rand McNally road map published in 1920s.
In fact if you look at maps of the Piedmont, hundreds of years old, you will see roads that roughly mark out where the four lane interstate is today. It seems that these roads had been an Indian trail before.
So I don't believe history is dead, any more than I believe that what my parents did has had no effect on me. Any more that I believe that what I teach my children will have no effect on them even after I'm dead. Each of us carries our history with us, even though we forget this in the present.
What Dr. Donald forgot is what I call the "vanishing point" of history and time.
Vanishing Point: Things that are closer appear larger, things further away smaller, until they disappear at the vanishing point. As it is with space so it is with time & history. (Wikimedia.org)
(Kirk glared slightly at me, but with a tinge of a smile and continued)
K.E.: Saul Steinberg drew a famous New Yorker cover depicting a New Yorker's view of the world. It showed Manhattan as huge, all of New Jersey as smaller than NYC, and the rest of the US diminishing in size and definition (with humorous titles) the further you went away from the city. Now this is a "vanishing point" view of the world. Meaning that the further you get from your point of reference, NYC in this case, what you envision, or imagine, gets increasingly smaller and less defined.
When I visited Washington D.C. not too long ago, I noticed a rack of huge blow-ups of this New Yorker cover. Only to my surprise, each one was from a different perspective. A view of the world from Hawaii , from Chicago, from Miami, etc. In each case the foreground "point of departure" was huge, such as Miami, and then increasingly the world got less and less defined and smaller and smaller the further you got from the initial point. Someone had a great sense of humor to put these all together, so that you could buy your own biased view of the world.
ME: (getting impatient) And what does this have to with history?
K.E.: Simple. This is how we view time. Recent events in time loom very large, ones somewhat further away are less important, ones many years away, of very little importance. A vanishing point in time.
And this is how it should be: recent events are usually going to have much more impact on us than events long ago.
Even historians recognize this. For example, when I took a basic Western History course in college, we spent more time on the Romans than the Egyptians. More time on the Renaissance than the Romans. More time on the modern world than on the Renaissance. In short the closer we got to the modern day, the more detail was covered.
Now Dr. Donald of Harvard had been teaching for a number of years. When he started in the 1940s, Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt were very important. But during his long career he decided that this time in history was less relevant than it used to be. When he thought about it, he realized it did not matter which Roosevelt carried the big stick, so he concluded that history was not important. That you could go through life and live a perfectly useful, moral life without knowing about these things.
However during his long career other events had overtaken him, such as Korea, the cold war, Vietnam, the space program, and Watergate. Now these more recent things are important to know. And it is only natural that our view of the increasingly distant past will get vaguer and vaguer as we keep up with more recent events.
ME: So are you saying that it doesn't matter whether we know about the American revolution? Is this too distant for us to bother with?
K.E.: Yes and no.. I'm saying that very important distant events which still affect us today, such as the American revolution and the Civil War, need to be understood in broad detail, but not fine detail. However, we ought to concentrate our efforts on recent history, three generations into the past. This time period is the most important.
For example, I think today it is important to understand the history of the world from about 1930 to the present. This includes the causes leading to the 2nd World War, the war itself, and the post war period. Again I would want to understand the most recent events in more detail than the more distant events.
But the mistake is to think that history is dead and gone. History is alive. For example, our personal history is who we are. A family is its shared memories. I make choices based on my understanding of things my father did and maybe even my grandfathers. Further back than that my "vanishing point" view of my personal history gets dim.
But, Dr. Donald is advocating national amnesia. Imagine that each of us woke up one morning and could only remember the recent past. If you wanted to you could look up things in a book, as Dr. Donald suggested, but it was not in your memory. Where would you start? You would not know where to begin. You would have no background information to work from, no frame work.
In short people would feel dislocated, alienated, frustrated, out of place. And this is exactly what Dr. Donald is advocating.
Slaves in the south were kept in total ignorance as to their location. Even if they escaped, they did not know where to go and thus were easily captured and returned. So ignorance is a form of confinement, a limiting influence. Each of us needs to have "mental maps" of how the modern world came into being, so that we can better understand our position in this world, how we got where we are. If this map is blank then we are flying blind. We are to some extent lost. And since time is one of the four dimensions of the world, as Einstein has stated, an ignorance about history means that a person's life is not fully realized; it is three dimensional but not four dimensional.
For a moment the sun broke through a hole in the clouds. Parts of the downtown were illuminated by shafts of light, in brilliant highlights and shadows.Let me go back to the example of amnesia. If each of us woke up one morning and could not remember any history, even how the United States came into existence, e.g. not remember anything about the American revolution or that we had immigrated from Europe, then I believe we could not function effectively as citizens. We could not make informed decisions about issues, understand our place in the world, or have an understanding of the laws that govern us. Therefore to answer Dr. Donald's implied question: under these circumstances, no, we could not be good citizens.
Further history is not just what Harvard or any one else says about it. It is an endless unbroken thread, some of which is written down in books studied in college and most of which is not. As Gerda Lerner, author of the Creation of Patriarchy said, we must distinguish between History, with a capital "H" and history with a small "h". History with a capital "H" represents recorded and interpreted history. And history with a small "h" involves unrecorded history and/or history which has not been focused on and interpreted. Nowadays historians are reaching back into time and and revising many of our notions of how things occurred. In a manner of speaking, they are creating new histories, because they are collecting, arranging, and interpreting past events in new ways.
Historians of women, for example, are trying to discover the lost history of females. It is obvious that women have always been a past of history, but little has been included in History with a capital "H". So in a sense they are discovering the past.
And history is allusive. Imagine that I made an appointment yesterday for a meeting tomorrow. Well yesterday is history but I'd better remember to be at my appointment tomorrow or I'm in big trouble. To use the old joke, "Today is the tomorrow you worried about yesterday." This may seem like a simple example but where do you draw the line? Are things a year ago history and events since then current time? I know of a daughter who is suffering an ailment from a drug her mother took thirty years ago, when her mother was pregnant with her. Is this where you draw the line? There are recurring histories of diseases and susceptibilities to diseases that run for generations through families and affect people today. So where do you draw the line?
And if this is true for individuals then how true is it for nations?
Recently the Russians and the Americans held a conference on what happened during the Cuban missile crisis. Now this event was over twenty-five years ago. Yet the conference was important and may affect us today. Because through the conference the superpowers may have learned ways to prevent such a crisis from reoccurring.
Nicholas I -- the Romanov Tsar for whom the last Tsar, Nicholas II was named. Nicholas II was related to the British royal family and was assassinated by the Bolsheviks. (Wikimedia.org)
But we must come to terms with the dynamics of time and the human needs. Recent history has got to be more important than history ten years ago , which is still more important than history twenty years ago and so on. Like looking into a mist. Things up close are distinct. Things get blurrier and blurrier until we really cannot make out much of anything.
It is still history but recent events, and those preceding them need to be given more weight. Which is as it should be.