Sunday, February 16, 2014

Good History. Bad History.

There are many moments that I would like to forget. There were times when I embarrassed myself, made a poor decision, treated someone less kindly than I should have...I can shove these moments aside and pretend they never happened, creating a white-washed picture of myself to remember and for the world to see. But I wouldn't do that. I am who I am. I am growing and changing and learning everyday. I am human and like any human, it is reflection on my mistakes that allows me to be a better person. Similarly, it is the mistakes of groups from which we learn as a society. I was reminded last week of how important it is to spread this message. Our understanding of history depends on it.

Every Monday, I meet with my school's 50th anniversary committee. Our institution will hit a milestone birthday in the year 2015 and we have big plans for the event. Right now we are working on a 50th anniversary logo. A big discussion ensued about our former moniker, which is understood by many, if not the majority, to be offensive these days. There were a lot of hard feelings over the change of the school mascot in the 1990s. Last week, the Committee members, both students and staff, were considering if we wanted to just avoid the topic.

Our goal is to reflect the past 50 years of our school's history. This was a big part of it. In fact, we were given our first donations for the new school archives this week and among them was a school pennant with the old mascot. We can't very well eradicate the image. Nor would I want to. The controversy about mascots still rages beyond our school. It is important for us to recognize how we fit here - how larger communities impact our smaller one. It is important for us to know all points of view on issues. Neglecting facts makes it difficult for history to be evaluated properly. Knowing who we are, and who we were, is also important for a realistic sense of identity.

It brings up many questions. To me, this is the study of history - any history:

  • Should we be proud of who were are and who we were?
  • Are there still mixed feelings or strong feelings about our past?
  • Do we all agree on these issues? Why or why not?
  • Have we grown or changed because of what we learn?
  • Have we become more thoughtful, understanding, or informed by past actions?
  • Have we become better listeners?
  • Are we moving in a positive direction because of what we learned?

Collecting part of a story prohibits us from reflecting on all of these things. We are not one-dimensional as a society. Not everyone has the same point of view. That's okay. Our documentation is one-key to communication and understanding. We can't sweep any of the past under the rug without hampering that full-understanding. It is one reason why the study of history is so important. Without it, we do not have a full-sense of reality.

The title of this article can be taken two ways. Is "good history" the recounting of the positive stories related to human activities? Does good history reflect our achievements and best side? Or does "good history" mean documentation that reflects the whole of humanity - our "best foot forward" AND our pitfalls? As an archivist, this seems obvious to me. "Bad history" is that which is white-washed. We need to be reminded of from where we came, how we grew, how we changed and why we made certain decisions so that we can move forward from here.  When the historical record is one sided, it prohibits us from adequate reflection. It prohibits us from becoming stronger and from "learning from our mistakes" and/or better explaining our points of view.

Whatever you think about certain events, ignoring them is wrong. I vote for good history every time.

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