History Matters

March 8, 2017

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You may not have noticed, but history is having a moment.

Often overlooked as a bit of a wallflower next to its showier sisters—arts, literature, and science — history does periodically take center stage and remind us of its inevitable, relentless impact on our lives.

We are experiencing one of those moments right now.

Look around and you will see history at the center of debates and conflicts, often in unexpected places.

In the South, where reminders of the Confederacy are unavoidable, communities continue to grapple with what to do with monuments, buildings, street names, and, yes, flags that are a constant reminder of a painful past. Georgetown, Yale, and most recently Harvard have responded to calls to confront their historic relationship to slavery.

Here in New Jersey, Princeton witnessed vigorous protests from students over buildings, art, and a school named for Woodrow Wilson, a man who (in addition to serving as the nation’s 28th president) famously entered the University as an undergraduate and ultimately became its president.

In the aftermath of the recent election, references to history and the lessons it can offer have proliferated in the media, too. Like me, you have no doubt heard endless comparisons with the past, whether it relates to the Electoral College, trade policies, or our relationship with Russia.

Naturally, history is a welcome and, I argue, essential anchor in the midst of rapid change. Some, however, are troubled by the general lack of historical literacy evident in 21st-century Americans.

In a thoughtful piece published in The New York Times on February 3rd of this year, columnist David Brooks ruminates on our shared historical story, what he calls “America’s true myth.” The myth has been bruised, he notes, “by an educational system that doesn’t teach civilizational history or real American history but instead a shapeless multiculturalism.”

I take Mr. Brooks to mean that it is the shapeless nature of current educational practice that is the problem, as he goes on to describe “the meaning of America” as “the purpose-driven experiment that Lincoln described and Emma Lazarus wrote about: assigned by providence to spread democracy and prosperity; to welcome the stranger; to be brother and sister to the whole human race; and to look after one another because we are all important to this common project.”

An understanding of our past, its achievements and its horrors, is vital to a vibrant, healthy democracy. And simply understanding the past is not enough — we all need to master and practice the process of forming opinions based on solid documentation, or, in other words, use the tools of history.

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The New Jersey Historical Commission is entrusted with advancing public knowledge of the history of New Jersey. The agency celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

This milestone offers an opportunity to reflect on the accomplishments of the past and, more importantly, affirm goals for the future. Through its grant program, the Commission is committed to supporting projects and institutions that demonstrate and teach the essential techniques of history, and seek to increase the diversity of history audiences through programs and leadership.

The Commission also encourages programs that use the materials of New Jersey history to address contemporary issues. The importance of this last priority cannot be overstated.

Our current national policy debates remind us that history is essential to making good decisions for the present and the future. History organizations around the nation are offering programs that invite visitors to use an understanding of the past to take action in the present.

In Mount Laurel, New Jersey, the Alice Paul Institute employs history to prepare the next generation to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow, to offer just one example. While the Alice Paul Institute offers programs for all students, it has long focused on building leadership skills in girls, inspired by the life and work of pioneering feminist Alice Paul.

Girls in grades nine through 12 can join their Girls Advisory Council to learn more about issues facing girls around the world, plan a New Jersey Women’s History Day, and even travel to Washington, D.C. to lobby for the Equal Rights Amendment.

What’s more, API’s careful tracking of program graduates documents their later success in college and career planning.

With history once more in the spotlight, I encourage you to look beyond the headlines and explore programs like the ones at Alice Paul.

Be reminded of the critical role that history plays in our civic life, and support history education in the classroom. And support the vital work of organizations that preserve our past and make it accessible and relevant to audiences today. The future of our democracy depends on it.

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Sara Cureton is executive director of the New Jersey Historical Commission, a division of the New Jersey Department of State. The Commission is dedicated to the advancement of public knowledge and preservation of New Jersey history. Established by law in 1967, its work is founded on the fundamental belief that an understanding of our shared heritage is essential to sustaining a cohesive and robust democracy.

Courtesy of the Alice Paul Institute. Girls explore the legacy of Alice Paul at her birthplace, Paulsdale in Mount Laurel, and develop leadership skills at programs offered by the Alice Paul Institute.