Saturday, November 24, 2007

One Lesson from Life of Logan Man: History Matters

This past week, the community to which my family and I recently moved, buried one of its most beloved citizens. Leland Conner was killed after a thirteen year old boy stole a vehicle from a rental agency and proceeded to cause a five-car crash that involved Mr. Conner's car.

Conner's death is one of those freakish tragedies that sometimes happen in this world, ample reason for the community's grief. Although seventy-seven years old, he remained an active person. On top of this, everybody who knew him with whom I spoke this week described him as a good man, a nice person. His death is rightly viewed as horrible in and of itself.

But there was an added dimension to the community's grief this past week. Simply put, Leland Conner was a keeper of the past. He knew the rich history of this part of Ohio. And not just the history that has unfolded since whites first came here as settlers. He also was apparently a font of information on the area's Native American history. He played a vital role in preserving and passing on that history, helping give tours to some of the many visitors who come to Hocking County each year and giving presentations to local students.

Fortunately, Conner committed some of his knowledge to several booklets, which are sold by the local historical society. (And for which he received no royalties.)

But his mind was a repository of more important information which, it may be, no other resident of the area possesses. His friends feel that loss keenly. "I've lost my main source. Now who are we going to ask?" one grief-stricken man told the Logan Daily News this past week.

Near the end of the Daily News article profile of Conner, reporter Gretchen Roberts writes:
Conner's research into the region of Hocking Hills has helped provide a firmer foundation for the people of the region to learn about their past.
It makes me feel good to be living now in a community that values its past and that can mourn one of its local historians.

Sadly, we live in ahistorical times. By that I mean, we live in an era with little regard for history. A "regard for history" has nothing to do with wanting to engage in some romantic nostalgia trip into the "good old days." I would rather be alive today than to have lived in the frontier times or earlier about which Leland Conner spoke and wrote.

I admit that I have my prejudices when it comes to the question of whether we should pay heed to history or not. As a boy, I was a nerd who loved hiding under a blanket with a flashlight and a volume of my Funk and Wagnalls encylopedia or one from the American Heritage illustrated history of the United States, after my parents had tucked me in for the night.

To this day, reading history and biography is among my favorite leisure-time pursuits. (I'm currently reading Michael Korda's fine biography of Dwight Eisenhower, Ike.) I was a Social Studies major at Ohio State, focusing mostly on history. My favorite vacations involve going to historical sites.

Much of my interest in things historical can be attributed to my parents and grandparents who saw to it that we understood history to be the story of the human drama and not just collections of dreary facts and dates.

Because I assumed history to be an essential area of knowledge--akin to knowing to fasten your seatbelt when you get into a car or avoiding puddles of water when using electric devices, I was surprised when an Ohio State Political Science professor I admired once told me, "History is a worthless subject." For me, it was one of those, "Come again?" moments. "Wait a minute," I said to him. "Your own discipline depends on history of a sort: polls about voters' attitudes over time, accounts of the work of what you call 'administrative decision-makers.' That's all history. How can you say that history is worthless?" On this topic my professor was as unmoved as any member of the Flat Earth Society would be by evidence that the planet is round.

But that professor was simply wrong. The past has its lessons and we ignore them at our peril.

Historical knowledge is an especially important possession for voters in a democracy like ours. We can't make good decisions about who to support in the upcoming presidential election, for example, if we don't have an appreciation for our constitutional system, why we do things the way we do, what has worked in the past and what hasn't.

John Kennedy wrote a preface to that multi-volume American Heritage illustrated history of the United States that I read by flashlight as a boy. The books were given to Goodwill long ago. But one phrase from the preface which I memorized at the time has stuck with me for forty-five years:
A knowledge of the past prepares us for the crisis of the present and the challenge of the future.
History, the human story, is entertaining. But it's also essential. Failure to learn its lessons will make us no better than cavemen. Knowing it will contribute to our wisdom and our capacity to live and thrive.


reader_iam said...

"... [A]n Ohio State Political Science professor I admired once told me, "History is worthless subject."

That's scary incomprehensible. I'm speechless, beyond that.

Mark Daniels said...

That was pretty much my reaction at the time.


gwen said...

You???... a nerd???? no way!!! A true loss in the death of Leland, fortunately his writings can speak for him.

Surellin said...

Here's a possible explanation for that "history is bunk" comment by the professor. OSU's Poli Sci department is highly technical, as poli sci departments go. They tend to believe in the measurable and that everything can be measured. If the prof was referring to "history" as the art of interpreting events rather than the sum of what is known about the past, he might well favor his "scientific" poli sci opinions to the gas that, in his opinion, practitioners of the art of history create. Possible?

Mark Daniels said...

That's possible. But I will tell you that the professor made the comment to me thirty-five years ago. Shortly thereafter, he left Ohio State for another university. I would add that he was much more "practical" and anecdotal in his approach to Poli Sci than other members of the faculty were. He had a background in running political campaigns. But none of that may matter. Thanks for the comment.