you don’t understand the present and can’t create a better future. That is Santayana’s curse. Apparently they are no longer teaching US history in college.
Now I have been a chaser of stories and history of my entire life. Chasing the real story behind the place we live has enriched me in so many ways. And there are so many stories. That’s what history is, the real story, ideally without and any additions by the teller. That’s why I find that it’s best to get as close to the reality as you can. I would love to read J. P. Morgan’s memoire, even though it has never been published to get inside his head. The same for the minutes of the New Haven RR’s board from 1900 to 1914. The last may exist in the Rockefeller library, but I bet that it tells a far different story than the one that has been portrayed for decades, since the 1960’s and the Weller book, which has spun a narrative of corruption that just looking at things from other angles I have not been able to find. That’s what history is.
When we attribute what we assume is modern thinking about thing like racism, for instance to plantation owners of the antebellum period we may be missing part of the story, a story that’s probably more complicated than we really think. Life is not black and white. After all there were black plantation owners, and Confederate veterans, along with white slaves.
You might think that the Chinese railroad employees in the 19th Century were only to be exploited until you read about the retired railroad employee in China thanking the SP railroad for his pension check that he received, in China. History is full of stories like that. If you don’t travel deeper than the simple narrative those stories disappear. These are the real history, the stuff that you don’t find in the summaries that most us got in school. These are the stories told to volunteers at museums by the people that lived them to get passed down. These are the stories that get bound up on oral histories and packed away until somebody finds them.
What happens though, when history is replaced with activism. When the only thing that is taught is a false narrative. The history of the consequences of that are also in dusty archives. Where the truth is that things did not end well. That too is the curse of Santayana.
I’ve found that the best way to understand a battle is to walk the field whether it’s Gettysburg or Yorktown. Like wise the best way to understand how an old factory worked is to visit. all of those places exist because of the energy of people dedicated to giving the past it’s due. If history is no longer taught, what happens when the next generation of conservators doesn’t exist? When there’s nobody to explain the important things that happened in important places anymore? When nobody knows enough to care? What will we lose as a culture? Probably something important.