OPINION: What we lose when we ignore historical context

When Jay Leno hosted “The Tonight Show,” he sometimes would interview young people on the street, asking them questions drawn from general cultural knowledge. Often, the kids he queried had no idea what he was talking about. Once at Christmastime, for example, he asked an enthusiastic twenty-something woman if she knew who Tiny Tim was, from Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” She had no clue. When Leno explained that he was a character from Dickens for whom Ebenezer Scrooge eventually develops charitable sentiment, the young woman responded, rather as an excuse for not knowing, “Oh, that was before my time.”

Writing in the Washington Post recently, George Will quoted from professor Mark Bauerlein’s 2008 book “The Dumbest Generation” regarding the worldview of millennials, born 1981-1996. They will grow up, Bauerlein wrote, to become “confused and unsatisfied adults,” bereft, Will paraphrased, “of the consolations of a cultural inheritance, which is unavailable to nonreaders.”

In a new book, “The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults,” Bauerlein writes that millennials have become illiberal, censorious young people. “The fractious know-nothing 30-year old is what we got when we let the 12-year old drop his books and take up the screen.”

That does not describe all millennials, surely. But it’s an accurate enough characterization of a great many. And it helps to explain a feeling of loneliness among millennials, and others, observed by researchers and pollsters, often explained as an effect of excessive screen time. This is reminiscent of Robert Putnam’s 2000 book “Bowling Alone.” Putnam argued that a decrease of in-person social intercourse which he and others observed, often taken to be a function of time devoted to electronic social media, interactions which used to help educate people in cultural knowledge, has undermined the active civil engagement required for a successful democracy. Too much time on social media robs young adults of an understanding of their culture, especially its democratic character, and their responsibility as citizens.

History and literature are windows into culture, one’s own and those unfamiliar. Authors carry their cultural assumptions into their writing, into the development of their characters and those characters’ interactions with others, and with the settings in which they think and act, or in the case of non-fiction, the environments they describe and the arguments they advance. One can’t read Seth Kantner’s “A Thousand Trails Home” and not absorb something of a self-sustaining life in the wilderness, and the wonderment of living among the caribou. To begin to grasp the impact of colonization on Alaska’s Native people, open Ernestine Saankalaxt Hayes’ lyrical and boldly honest “Blonde Indian.” Samuel Huntington’s “American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony” will bring context to what’s happening today politically, and Anne Applebaum’s “Twilight of Democracy” analyzes it acutely. More than one writer has described Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America” as the best book ever written about the United States.

History provides context, and helps develop a sensitivity to contingencies, how one thing leads to another and how what did happen, or didn’t, redounds into the present. Thus, it helps to explain and analyze what’s happening now, and so is relevant. Things do not happen in isolation, and history and literature contribute to understanding where they came from. The dates are the fodder. The focus of history is to discover the meaning of past human thought and action, and how it impinges on the present, and the future. And the more history one reads, the more one understands interpretation, or put another way, that history is like life: uncertain and often indefinite.

In September 2021, experts in the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians, the two most prestigious history organizations in the country, sent an amicus brief to the U.S Supreme Court regarding Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the abortion case. The historians pointed out that there is a long history of the acceptance of abortion in common law, statute law and American history, and explained how early abortion came to be criminalized in the late 19rh century. The court majority chose to ignore that history. To date, 20 additional organizations have signed a protest to the court’s disregard of that history, deeming it imperative to set the record straight, despite the court’s indifference.


That history happened before the present court’s time. But it was as relevant as history could be to their deliberations. The majority’s studied and circuitous ignoring of it in the majority opinion seems to demonstrate that they understood.

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

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Steve Haycox

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