Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Historian's Responsibility

From my first blog entry to the present, I have written of my belief that so many of our personal and our political mistakes can be avoided if only we learn from history.  (See "I Love History," 1-3-2012 and "Year's End," 12-30-2011 in the Blog Archives.)
I follow a wonderful blog titled "Brain Pickings" that always gives me ideas for reflection when I find time to visit it, and a recent posting inspired this week's blog with ideas taken from Erich Fromm (1900-1980), William James (1842-1910), and contemporary Dominican American writer, Junot Diaz.  A common thread in their writing inspired me to consider the challenge of creating interest in information in a world so filled with competing distractions. 
Artist:  Artero Espinosa
German psychologist and philosopher Erich Fromm used the analogy of the development of a rose bush to our own power to direct our lives. He explained that while we have come to understand the impact of soil nutrients, optimal temperatures, sunlight and shade to aid in the growth of a rose bush, that does not prohibit the ability of the rose bush itself to bend its growth in reaching for the sun.  Likewise, each individual can reach for his or her own potential growth, despite external factors.  Fromm wrote:  "The goal of living [is] to grow optimally according to the conditions of human existence and thus to become fully what one potentially is; to let reason or experience guide us to the understanding of what norms are conductive to well-being, given the nature of man that reason enables us to understand."
My desire to tell Isaac's story and share the important history of a region that was the center of the Progressive Movement in the late 1800s is driven by what I see as the importance of knowing that history so that its experience can guide us today.
A contemporary Dominican American writer, Junot Diaz, (born 1968) expresses how art can play a role in educating readers in a rapidly changing world.  In an interview, Diaz said:  "One of the best things about art, as anyone who's studied a Victorian text knows, is that the future comes faster than we imagine, and there is a future coming up, of young artists and young critics and young scholars, who are thinking in ways that make the current conversation about our art look incredibly reductive." 
One important role for writers of history, I believe, is to make what we write relevant to young readers so that their perspective is not limited to their own experiences.  There is a certain arrogance that distances both young and old from each other.  A positive thing about young people is their confidence in themselves, but it tends to blind them to lessons of the past; a positive thing about older people is the wisdom they have gained from experience, but it tends to blind them to the innovation necessary in a changing world.  Writers of history must find a way to bridge both of those chasms in attitude that separate young and old.
William James (1842-1910)
A quote from William James (1842-1910) expresses the challenge of bridging those widely varying daily perceptions of our common world.  "Millions of items of the outward order are present to my senses which never properly enter into my experience.  Why?  Because they have no interest for me.  My experience is what I agree to attend to.  Only those items which I notice shape my mind--without selective interest, experience is an utter chaos.  Interest alone gives accent and emphasis, light and shade, background and foreground, intelligible perspective, in a word.  It varies in every creature, but without it consciousness of every creature would be a gray chaotic indiscriminateness, impossible for us even to conceive."
Any parent or teacher already knows that the typical teenager only pays attention to what interests him or her.  Likewise, if we are honest, by middle age most adults no longer pay much attention to the culture shaping teenagers. If capturing the attention of differing ages of people living at the same time in order to create a common experience is difficult, it is understandable that writers of history face an even greater challenge to capture the attention of readers about a historic period about which the relevance to their lives is not immediately apparent.
Newsboys (eyeing newsgirl) from the 1800s
To bring this discussion into today's news, I offer two examples from the same day's New York Times.  Nicholas Confessore, writing about how the GOP elite lost its voters to Trump, pointed out that "...faithful voters, blue-collar white Americans, who faced economic pain and uncertainty over the past decade [while] the party's donors, lawmakers and lobbyists prospered" were paying attention to different events. As William James explained, "Only those items which I notice shape my mind..."
In the same day's newspaper, Yamiche Alcondor, who is covering Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side, described the world his supporters were experiencing:  "the anger at Wall Street; the indie rock anthems; and the kiwi slices consumed aboard his campaign plane" align Sanders's appeal to the cultural moment "for liberals, young people and union workers."  In short, again quoting James, "Interest alone gives accent and emphasis..."
Whether you are a politician shaping history or a writer sharing history, you will not reach potential voters or potential readers unless you can capture attention in a world so filled with distracting appeals, or as stated by James: "My experience is what I agree to attend to..."  No matter how compelling nor how significant the lessons of history may be, they can only shape the minds of those living today if they are noticed.  Providing a reason for reading history is the responsibility of writers who believe it is important to share that history.  

1 comment:

The Blog Fodder said...

Writing history for the younger generation must be a challenge. A list of novels people are advised to read in highschool left me wondering what good it would do as most would not have anything close to the background to understand them. Thinking in particular of 1984 and Animal Farm. How does one understand history without having read a great deal of it? Whether writing it or reading it?