What we lose when we ignore historical context

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When Jay Leno hosted “The Tonight Show”, he would sometimes interview young people on the street, asking them questions drawn from general cultural knowledge. Often the children he interviewed had no idea what he was talking about. Once at Christmas, for example, he asked an enthusiastic woman in her twenties if she knew who Tiny Tim was, from Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” She had no idea. When Leno explained that he was a Dickensian character for whom Ebenezer Scrooge eventually developed a charitable feeling, the young woman replied, rather as an excuse for not knowing, “Oh, that was before my time.”

Writing recently in the Washington Post, George Will quoted Professor Mark Bauerlein’s 2008 book “The Dumbest Generation” regarding the worldview of millennials, born between 1981 and 1996. They will grow up, Bauerlein writes, to be “confused adults dissatisfied”, deprived, will paraphrase, “of the consolations of a cultural heritage, which is not accessible to non-readers”.

In a new book, “The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stunned Youth to Dangerous Adults,” Bauerlein writes that millennials have become illiberal and censored youth. “The grumpy 30-year-old who knows nothing is what we got when we let the 12-year-old drop his books and take to the screen.”

That doesn’t describe all millennials, surely. But that’s a pretty accurate characterization of a lot. And it helps explain a sense of loneliness among millennials, and others, observed by researchers and pollsters, often explained as an effect of excessive screen time. It’s reminiscent of Robert Putnam’s 2000 book “Bowling Alone.” Putnam argued that a decrease in the in-person social relationships he and others observed, often seen as a function of time spent on electronic social media, interactions that helped educate people in cultural knowledge, undermined the active civic engagement necessary for successful democracy. Too much time on social media robs young adults of an understanding of their culture, especially its democratic character, and of their responsibility as citizens.

History and literature are windows on culture, one’s own and those that one does not know. Authors carry their cultural assumptions into their writing, into the development of their characters and those characters’ interactions with others, and with the contexts in which they think and act, or in the case of non-fiction, the environments that they describe and the arguments they advance. You can’t read Seth Kantner’s A Thousand Trails Home without immersing yourself in independent living in nature and the wonder of living among caribou. To begin to grasp the impact of colonization on the native peoples of Alaska, open Ernestine Saankalaxt Hayes’ lyrical and boldly honest “Blonde Indian.” Samuel Huntington’s “American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony” will provide context to what is happening politically today, and Anne Applebaum’s “Twilight of Democracy” analyzes it with acumen. More than one writer has described Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America as the best book ever written about the United States.

The story provides context and helps to develop an awareness of contingencies, how one thing leads to another and how what has or hasn’t happened affects the present. Thus, it helps to explain and analyze what is happening now, and is therefore relevant. Things do not happen in isolation, and history and literature help to understand where they come from. Dates are fodder. The purpose of history is to discover the significance of past human thought and action, and how they impinge on the present and the future. And the more history one reads, the more one understands the interpretation, or in other words, that history is like life: uncertain and often undefined.

In September 2021, experts from the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians, the nation’s two most prestigious history organizations, sent an amicus brief to the United States Supreme Court regarding Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the abortion case. Historians have pointed out that there is a long history of acceptance of abortion in common law, statutory law, and American history, and have explained how early abortion was criminalized in the late 19th century. The majority of the court chose to ignore this story. To date, 20 additional organizations have signed a protest against the court’s disregard for the story, saying it is imperative to set the record straight, despite the court’s indifference.

This story happened before the current time of the Court. But it was as relevant as the story could be to their deliberations. The studied and indirect ignorance of the majority in the majority opinion seems to demonstrate that it has understood.

Steve Haycox is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska in Anchorage.

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