Why Study Alaska History, or What’s the Story Here, Anyway?

07-10-2004

History is elusive. It's not what it's said to be. We expect it to be a collection of important facts that will help us understand the past, and we assume that understanding the past will help us better understand the present. While there is some truth to these assumptions, there's also a good bit about them that is misleading.

First, it's useful to ask who decided which facts should be included in "history," and which ones left out. One answer is to quip "history is written by the winners". But to some degree we're all winners and losers. We're winners, for example, in that the founders of America were successful in their revolution, and they created a constitution that promises its citizens more freedom and opportunity that any other nation. It's true that opportunity is greater for some than for others, and that such inequality represents a failure of the nation's founding principles. On the other hand, even those who do not have as much opportunity as others still have more opportunity than most people in other nations.

By the same token, nearly all of us are losers, if by winners we mean those with the power, the wealth and the position that puts them in an elite group. Most of us are not elite. And as a nation we have rejected those socialist organizations that would attempt to equally distribute the wealth and resources of the nation by force. Instead we have accepted the notion that equality of opportunity does not mean an equal distribution of wealth. Most of us are reasonably content with that idea because we would rather have freedom than to be told what job we will hold, how much money we may earn and how much of it we may keep.

Over the last forty years there has been a revolution in the study and writing of history. Historians today are much more aware of and sensitive to the history of minorities in America, and the history of how certain policies segregated and discriminated against minorities. Today's historians better appreciate the lives of ordinary people. Nearly every new textbook used in teaching American history reflects this new sensitivity and understanding.

We look to professional historians to tell us which are the most important facts. We also look to them to tell us what the relationship is between those facts about the past that they say are important, and our understanding of the present. But not all historians choose the same facts, and emphasize the same way of understanding the relation of those facts to the present. Actually, historians vary quite widely on what they think is important, and why. It is that wide difference of opinion among professional historians that causes many people to give up on history. We're not quite sure what the connection is between the past and present, and we are not at all sure which historian to trust.

So it's a fair question to ask what history is doing in the curriculum? Why should we study history?

Everyman His Own Historian

Many years ago, an American historian named Carl Becker wrote an important essay he titled "Everyman His Own Historian." History, Becker argued, "cannot be reduced to a verifiable set of statistics or formulated in terms of universally valid mathematical formulas. It is rather an imaginative creation, a personal possession which each one of us, Mr. Everyman, fashions out of his individual experience, adapts to his practical or emotional needs, and adorns as well as may be to suit his aesthetic tastes." The reason this is so, Becker suggested, is because the facts of history don't line themselves up in any proper order, from most to least significant, and they don't tell us their meaning. By themselves, facts are pretty neutral. It is up to us to discover their meaning. Each of us has a unique way of making meaning because each of us is different. We have had different experiences and we have different takes on reality.

It doesn't take long to realize that there must be more to history than simply finding a historian or historical writer whose interpretation we like, and taking his or her writing for gospel. And some of us may simply decide that history is impossible, that we won't ever be able to figure it out with any confidence. Some might even conclude that history is, more or less bunk. That's what Henry Ford thought. The problem for Ford, and for many people who try to go beyond simply studying and memorizing some supposedly "fundamental" facts about history is that history is hard work. We don't expect it to be; we expect it to be a single, reliable and unchanging thing. History is a lot more like studying literature or philosophy than it is like studying math, engineering, or political science.

History as a Liberal Art

And this is why history is grouped with the other "liberal arts". The idea of the liberal arts (in this case the word "liberal" comes from the Latin word "liber" meaning to free; the liberal arts are meant to free us from ignorance, superstition and prejudice) is that the study of how human beings have lived will give us insight into how and why people act as they do, why they think the way they do, and the meaning of it all. Most important, the liberal arts provide insight into what it means to be human. The liberal arts are often called the humanities.

Studying the liberal arts, including history, sharpens judgment. It broadens our perspective by helping us to seriously question why things have developed the way they have and why people acted as they did. Such questioning often gives us a more realistic understanding of human life, even when it does not give us definite answers.

Why Study Alaska's History?

The study of Alaska cultures and history is useful and important for helping us to understand how human life has developed in this region, this state. It's important for helping us understand what challenges people have faced and how they met them, and how the process shaped their lives and their culture. Alaska's various people and their histories affect us today; we did not create the world we live in; it was created for us by those who went before us. They left their world to us, as we are leaving our world to future generations. Whatever insight we gain into how our world was shaped and how its values and assumptions reflect the judgments, perceptions and decisions of those who created it, will help us better to understand the world we live in and better understand ourselves.

For example, understanding the approach made by various American missionaries to the Native people of Alaska can help us understand the circumstances of Alaska Native people today. It can also help us understand much of the current government policy regarding Native people. Understanding the economic booms tied to natural resource production can help us better understand Alaska's economic challenges today. Understanding the motives and ideals of the generation of people who worked for statehood can help us appreciate the political divisions of the present and the keen commitment to Alaska independence that is felt across the state. Understanding the origins of Alaska's game laws and the concern for Alaska's extraordinary environment can give us insights into the battles over developing new resources in Alaska. These are just a few of the links between Alaska's past and present.

History is about connections. The more we can question and understand Alaska history, the better we can question, understand and come to know ourselves.

History as a Story

William Cronon, one of today's most important historians, said that for history to be meaningful, it must be framed as a story. Most good histories - among them Barbara Tuchman's Guns of August, Elliott West's Contested Plains, Carlo Ginzburg's The Cheese and the Worms, Garrett Mattingly's The Defeat of the Spanish Armada - tell an interesting and useful story. It may be a story of triumph, such as Stephen Ambrose's Undaunted Courage, or one of failure, such as Don Worster's The Dust Bowl. The stories include judgment, or commentary on the meaning of the story. Gay and Lanie Salisbury's The Cruelest Miles judges that Dr. Curtis Welch acted courageously and wisely in confronting the diphtheria epidemic in Nome in 1925, and Orcutt W. Frost argues in Bering that the Captain-Commander made new and insightful contributions to world geography. On the other hand, Joe McGinnis in Going to Extremes judged that Alaskans were unprepared for the wealth that overtook them in the early 1970s after the discovery of oil at Prudhoe Bay. In the end history is not neutral. It reflects judgments about why people did certain things and what resulted from their actions. From reading various histories, the preserved documentary record, we gain important insights into how human beings acted in diverse circumstances. Understanding what history means is a far cry from simply knowing "the facts" of history. History becomes interesting when there is a meaningful story, like the story of Alaska's struggle for statehood, or the Alaska Native Brotherhood's battle for an anti-discrimination bill, or the resolution of the great conflict between selecting state land and honoring Native land claims that resulted in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971.

History - A Tool for the Future

We study history and Alaska history to learn better how our culture and our world was shaped, and in learning that, we understand more what it means to be human. Through that understanding, we come to know ourselves and our fellow human beings better, and we are better able to judge our world and to plan for the world of the future.

Resources:

  • http://historymatters.gmu.edu/
  • Sam Wineberg, "Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts"
  • William Cronon, "A Place for Stories: Nature, History and Narrative," Journal of American History, March 1992