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Conkling: Reading, living and breathing our history

Jim Watson photo
Jim Watson photo

Guest writer Gary Conkling is a managing partner at CFM, a Portland- based strategic communications and public affairs firm. After getting his start in newspapering, he served as staff director for U.S. Rep. Les AuCoin, then U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, in Washington, D.C. He co-founded CFM in 1990, after several years as public affairs director at Tektronix. A Colorado native and Seattle Pacific graduate, he has also taught for many years in Willamette University’s MBA program. The accompanying essay is from his Life Notes blog, found on Word Press.

The recent deaths of two renowned historians prompt a reflection on history, including the 9/11 attacks in New York City, the Pentagon and Shanksville that shook the nation and provoked an expensive, inconclusive 20-year war.

Donald Kagan of Yale was a classicist and an unrelenting political conservative who peppered his writings with references to the New York Yankees. Leon Litwack of the University of California at Berkeley was the son of left-wing Russian immigrants who punctuated his historical accounts of racial oppression with references to the blues and while wearing his trademark leather jacket.

Kagan left his mark on U.S. foreign policy partly through a book he co-authored with his son, While America Sleeps. Litwack left his through several influential books, including “Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery,” which won a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award.

Neither enjoyed the popularity of historian David McCullough, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns or biographers Ron Chernow, Garry Wills and Jon Meacham. They weren’t included on the list of the 25 most influential contemporary historians from 2010 to 2020, based on their academic research.

Yet, Kagan, 89, and Litwack, 91, were featured in substantial obituaries in The New York Times that recognized their notable contributions to our collective knowledge of history. That counts for something in my book.

Kagan was a jock who took personal liberty and foreign threats seriously. Litwack was absorbed in Bay Area counterculture and mined obscure archives to retrieve the stories of Black Americans who lived during Reconstruction and the ensuing Jim Crow era.

Kagan’s work influenced foreign policy hawks. Litwack did the early work for critical race theory analysts.

During their lifetimes, both men were critical and criticized in response.

Kagan publicly criticized Yale University for canceling a speech by William Shockley, who espoused a theory that Black people were inferior. Kagan reviled the view, but felt it deserved to be aired.

Litwack drew criticism from fellow historians who felt he relentlessly portrayed Black Americans as oppressed victims.

Both men’s life work in history is surprisingly current.

Kagan’s issues of free expression, personal choice and U.S. foreign policy resolve could be ripped from today’s news headlines. As we speak, Republican politicians and angry parents are loudly challenging how and whether the true history of Black America is taught in schools.

Yet, many people, including me, had never heard of either Kagan or Litwack. It took their obituaries to highlight their achievements and views, and that attention may be fleeting.

Unlike the late Ed Asner, who was remembered with video clips of his seminal roles, there weren’t any video clip memories of Kagan or Litwack. They will only be remembered only by what they wrote in their history books — and only then if those books are read.

That brings this conversation to the state of history in America.

Once upon a time, American public high school students took one year of U.S. history and one year of world history. That had shrunk to one year or less by 1985, according to a report published by The New York Times, and history has gotten an even shorter shrift in American classrooms since then.

“Does it matter if Americans are ignorant of their past? Does it matter if the general public knows little of the individuals, the events and the movements that shaped our nation?” The Times asked in its report. It responded affirmatively, declaring, “The fundamental premise of our democratic form of government is that political power derives from the informed consent of the people. Informed consent requires a citizenry that is rational and knowledgeable.”

Rational and knowledgeable wouldn’t be an accurate description of America’s current public discourse, which could be summed up by people who resist COVID-19 vaccines and encourage infected persons to rely on a drug designed to deworm horses.

Even as history shrivels as a component of American education, Americans have brawls over what and how history is taught.

The parents and rabblerousers leading the charge are themselves products of feeble historical educations. Many think there is a “right way” to view history, but history has shown that what happened in the past has many faces, and some of those faces take years, decades or even centuries to reveal themselves.

After all, we’re still discovering early texts of the Bible, which some view as the ultimate truth.

As debates rage over “appropriate” history, many teachers have subtly shifted their courses over to social science, probing current topics like the effect of digital media on elements of everyday life such as dating and shopping. In this context, the exploding popularity of the internet in the 1990s looks like ancient history.
The best that most of us get these days is snippets of history.

Ken Burns’ historical documentaries are sustained pieces of selective subjects. The History Channel and a handful of popular movies offer insight into specific historical events and figures.

For example, the newly released “Worth” provides an engaging look at how the families of 9/11 victims received emotional respect as well as monetary compensation for their lost loved ones.

The story is poignant. But so is lots of history, if we take the time to consider it.

History is not divorced from everyday life.

Born in Lithuania, Kagan loved the Yankees despite growing up in Brooklyn, the original home of the Dodgers. He stood up to local bullies, whose aggressive behavior appeared to influence his view of the world as a violent place.

Litwack, an only child, grew up in an ethnically diverse, pro-labor enclave in Santa Barbara.

He was drawn to downtrodden characters in books by Charles Dickens and John Steinbeck. He paid his college tuition by working as a mess boy on freighters steaming out of San Francisco.

Their lives influenced their historical perspectives and writings.

Kagan, who earned a Fulbright scholarship to study in Greece, celebrated ancient civilization for its civic virtues. Litwack, enthralled by the blues, exposed a darker side of American history and urged civic change.

Kagan and Litwack were both men of their times and men of all times. They saw value in understanding the past in order to deal with the future.

So here’s my suggestion: Instead of shouting at school board meetings, trolling on social media or carrying pickets, why don’t we model the behavior of routinely consuming credible history.

There is no shortage of subjects or venues. History can be found in books, speeches, news articles, podcasts, documentaries, movies and even blogs.

Don’t just look for comfortable history, either. Search out challenging history.

Find out what you don’t know and apply it to what you believe. Be open to discovery and change.

Spanish philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Winston Churchill usefully altered the quote to, “Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.” But it’s hard to learn historical lessons when you never learned the history behind them.

There are more than 1,000 monuments scattered across the world in memory of 9/11. Many contain metal salvaged from the toppled Twin Towers. The purpose is to remember what happened on that fateful day 20 years ago.

Unfortunately, though, monuments are silent reminders, not living lessons. We need to live and breathe history lessons.

Comments

Don Dix

From the article -- (NY Times report) “Does it matter if Americans are ignorant of their past? Does it matter if the general public knows little of the individuals, the events and the movements that shaped our nation?”

Yes, it matters greatly. However, some are inclined to conveniently ignore past successes and failures as if they have no play today. In this respect learning is akin to experience -- there is no substitute!