Historical beachcombing

Watching Coastal Railways with Julie Walters, I was struck by the northeast England episode, which featured (among other things like a brilliant bookstore in Alnwick) a couple who collect things they find on the beach, clean them up, and display them on a table in their home. Walters then reads a bit from a 1956 poem by e e cummings, which ends:

may came home with a smooth round stone
as small as a world and as large as alone.

For whatever we lose(like a you or a me)
it’s always ourselves we find in the sea

The beachcombers were finding that which had been lost. So does the protagonist in the book I’ve just started, Ruth Hogan’s The Keeper of Lost Things. He takes things left on railway carriages and park benches, tries to find the owner, then carefully saves them. The behavior is partly explained by having lost his wife when they’d only been married a short time, but the meaning is bigger than that.

When I wrote my most recent course, History of Technology, it had a theme from the start: that whatever the extraordinary technological advances of an era, something is also lost. Throughout my lectures I ask students to consider technological change from this perspective, not just what technology was new and what problems it solved, not just what new problems the thing created, but what was lost in the advent of the new technology.

I soon return to teaching after a short sabbatical, with the country’s morale, and society’s confusions, in an even worse state than when my most recent class concluded last August. In planning for spring semester, I have written a completely new closing lecture for American history (having been shamed by The Onion’s “High School History Textbook Concludes with Little Blurb about Last 40 Years“). I made connections to the past, but I also added current material that followed those threads. I needed additional readings, and one of these is Eli Saslow’s recent article in the Washington Post, “‘Nothing on this page is true’: How lies become truth in online America“.

I follow Twitter enough to be appalled by both the far-right and the far-left, and I’ve read enough post-modern historiography now to become completely disheartened. Princeton historian Kevin Kruse seems to be almost single-handedly defending my discipline in the context of continual assaults on basic facts. This, combined with the current historians’ angst about the AHA report on the decline of history majors, makes it a difficult time to return to the classroom. Perhaps if I had not had a few months without teaching, it wouldn’t have hit me as hard.

So what has all this to do with beachcombing?

This fall my friend Jane went on a Thames Discovery adventure to find cool things in the mud next to the Thames. Not my type of thing, of course (wet, mud, dirty hands), but she brought me old clay pipes and showed me other artifacts she had discovered, some quite ancient. Uncovering things is what archaeologists do.

And as I tied all this together, I remembered that historians uncover things too. That’s very basic to understanding history teaching — we often talk about trying not to cover material, but rather uncover and have students discover. And this is what Kevin Kruse is doing: he is uncovering the history that remains hidden to most people, who will believe the stupidest things because they don’t know what’s happened in the past. These days, when it’s not only possible but relatively easy to look up the truth (it takes minutes online rather than a trip to the library to fact-check something), I get impatient and think, “why don’t they just look up the facts?”

But as Saslow’s piece demonstrates, they don’t look it up. Some are intellectually lazy, and some think there’s an educated elite conspiring to lie to them. I cannot convince those who insist, like the woman in his article, that regardless of the facts something ridiculous is true enough because it fits with previously ill-informed beliefs. But it is my job to uncover and share that which should be shared.

Could it be as simple as a student thinking people didn’t smoke in the 17th century, or that they crafted things to last and weren’t wasteful way back then, and me taking out the clay pipe Jane gave me to show that 17th century people both smoked and made disposable pipes that they threw in the trash? Probably not.

What has been lost, of course, is much more than bits of facts from the past, much more than discarded clay pipes. It’s the whole perspective that the past is significant, that it can be known and interpreted in ways that are based on the facts, and that these interpretations can and should inform our decisions and perspectives. Also fading is the idea that these interpretations can be developed within an ethical system designed to increase knowledge, rather than prune it to particular ends.

Like the protagonist in Hogan’s book, I can collect these lost things and try to find their owners, or at least students who might care about them. I can display them on my pedagogical table. Rather than seeing myself as shaping or changing minds, I could be the beachcomber sharing my finds.  It would certainly be a better mindset entering the new term.


2 thoughts to “Historical beachcombing”

  1. You connect dots that many of us look right past…so I for one appreciate the sharing that you do! Best of luck as you return to the classroom!

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