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Why Know History? A Case for Spatiality

This week I was lucky enough to assist a friend/colleague with an end-of-semester classroom activity. Tiffany Weaver [@tileenweaver] teaches Popular Culture to freshmen and sophomores (and the random senior seeking additional credits) at Penn State Harrisburg. Each semester she concludes with a poster session that showcases the students’ final projects. As groups they are asked to evaluate a decade in American culture through the broad themes of music, film, or television and are required to create an argument that identifies features of that decade, and to integrate this with class materials. The students seem to love this project. I participated as an “official judge” and was able to talk to the students directly about their work.

Clearly, they were excited about their topics – that they could “study” music or television or film history and it would actually count as a class!!

Typically, when I speak to students about their assignments in my American studies courses, or when I see them in an arena like the poster session, I present a question to get at the core of what they are learning and to move beyond the (sometimes distracting) details. I want to know their thoughts on why we learn the things we do.
Last week I asked the poster session students: Why is it important to know history?

I was met with blank stares. I caught them off guard.

This is not to say that the students were clueless about their work. Many could wax eloquent about their research. It was delightful.

I think, though, that this is a question that academics and students struggle with regularly. And they should! Before we know it, standard answers to the question, “Why know history?” become stale and cliché, and this is dangerous. It is dangerous because often historical perspective is what allows us to see ourselves as a part of a larger system of being and prevents societies from making major mistakes. If impressions about the importance of history become platitudinal, people stop using history. The usability of history declines. To understand this, one must know history as more than just “something that happens,” but as a way of documenting the past. History never simply occurs. It is translated for a new generation.

As I asked students, “Why is it important for us to know about I Love Lucy?” or “How does knowledge of Kurt Cobain’s life change our perspective today?” they fumbled over answers about influence and importance and how the artists “had a big impact on society” (my least favorite phrase, by the way.) This does not answer the question. It only starts to answer the question.

Knowing history should be synonymous to knowing ourselves better. In this sense I move very much beyond facts and figures. Names, dates, and the details of events are an important starting point – but bring little to the table. Especially in the era of Wikipedia, this data does nothing for us. In fact, I believe sometimes names and dates do more harm than good to those who are instructed on the primacy of this information. Not only does it limit the possibilities for branching out to full knowledge, it makes one assume that previous generations are, by nature, so different from “us.” We neglect to recognize our similarities and develop a prejudice against the past, assuming that due to “linear development” (read: improvement/progress) of history/technology we are somehow better than our ancestors.

A few of the books I am reading lately deal with the idea that the linearity of history takes up too much of our attention – that we should consider other ways of thinking about the human experience. For instance, in the mid-1990s postmodern geographer Edward Soja argued for a reconsideration of space as a method of interacting with the human narrative (“narrative” may not be the right word, since it automatically assumes a linear progression of time). He does this in several of his works, but predominately in Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-Imagined Places (1996). Soja builds upon French philosopher Henri Lefebvre’s discussion of “the Aleph,” a space where all places exist at once and the “viewer” can see all places at once. This imaginary location is incredibly small (about the size of a nutshell), but all the earth and endless galaxies are held in it.

Think about that for a moment. What does a theoretical concept like this do to our understanding and use of historical facts?

It obliterates chronology. It tears away the primacy of names and dates.
It uplifts the need to consider culture and history through a spatial idea, rather than along a timeline.

Our existence as physical beings begs to acknowledge the landscape that we live upon and the spaces we occupy. Through the mental exercise of “the Aleph” or Soja’s “Thirdspace” we comprehend the web of attachments and relationships between humans, nonhuman species, and the earth. Redefining a concept of history through the understanding of spatial significance does not reject historical narrative, but removes its dominance in our minds to recognize other methods of historical interpretation. I believe it also removes human beings from the center of the earth’s history and establishes our place within the ecosystem.

An idea like this also helps answer the question I posed to the students last week: “Why know history?” A spatial understanding connects past, present, and future – and I argue that it will support us to make better decisions while synthesizing events for consideration and use, not just general knowledge.

History is not for Jeopardy.
History is for us to utilize in order to make the world better for ourselves and for posterity.
Edward W. Soja, Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-Imagined Places. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1996.

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