Blog Post

Hoarding History

 

But it has taken me months to come to terms with the fact that I have reconnected my present life to this really not-so-distant past. It certainly felt more distant before my move. In these past months, I suppose I have been collecting information, not just data, historic facts, documents and such. As I've traveled backroads, at a slower, humane pace, I have been collecting images and storing them in my brain for later use. I have trusted myself that I would in fact soon retrieve them as I look to synthesize what I know, what I've seen, the past with the present. For me, the sharing hasn't come soon enough really. I've been anxious about the task before me, making the past not to mention its relationship to the present, intelligible and, yes, interesting. I started with my students, just sharing bits and pieces, trying not to overwhelm them. Perhaps I devoted three classes to African American emancipation in northwest Mississippi (and southwest Tennessee). They've seemed mildly interested; they've been polite anyway. They ask relatively few questions, most of them do, and I get a definite message that they are really, really encapsulated within their present constructions. I do not judge them for that; it's certainly a condition I share with them. I'm only consciously, or as consciously as I know how to be, in recovery from similar constructions and reconstructions. This is a fact I think that was confirmed one day when, after some of my sharing, one very bright political science major, taking me for advanced writing, remarked, "You're a...history hoarder." "A what?" I asked her. "You hoard history." I sat for a minute attempting to take in what she had said. Was this a judgment of me? She'd offered her view of me with a smile. But I must have looked hurt or at least shocked by her description of my doings, because, she chuckled, then apologized. "I'm just kidding," she said. I didn't know if I should accept her apology, because, well, I didn't believe that she had been kidding. What she had said had been too original, born of the moment, apt. Yet the thing was I had never thought of myself as any kind of hoarder, I who was so interested in sharing I was at any given time bursting at the seams. It is why I teach! So, of course, I wanted to figure out this painful judgment. Initially, I appeased myself with this: to the present generation all historians, if not all professors, are hoarders of knowledge. We are thought to hoard not because we do not pass on what we know; we are thought to hoard because we know--too much, it seems. Anyone who is living in the present and who has at his or her fingertips endless entertainments, real pleasures that theoretically can allow one to sail pretty smoothly through the modern plane of existence--if one is so inclined--and yet chooses for some strange reason to become occupied with the past, is, according to my student, a hoarder of history. And this, her smile seemed to suggest, is not a desirable condition, when one has a choice to do and to be otherwise.  

Who are America's other history hoarders? Are they elders who don't pass on family history, professors who never manage to give to their students all that they know, archivists whose work--as important as it is--involves collecting and cataloging, filing away and preserving artifacts that will only be viewed by a relative few, or digital humanists, who well know how The Web widens access but who may not have yet found a way to reach a really large swath of the public? How can we make our students interested? Just as importantly,  how can we discover and practice a new ethics of information and knowledge, one that will be welcomed rather than rejected?

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