WARNING: This is a nonsense brain dump. Nothing here is backed up by anything.
What would it be like to have no sense of history? Example: peasants of the Dark Ages did not know about the Middle Ages, and the Middle Ages peasants did not know about the Roman Empire.
What would this be like today? If we only had the stories of our grandparents to go from, if that much? If our historical view of the world ended with sixty years in the past, that would mean we would have no Jane Austen, no Isaac Newton, no Leonardo da Vinci. Can we even imagine that? A world without a past? What would we even have today if our cultural memory only reached back fifty to sixty years… no popular culture as we know it, no literature, no science, no clue about where we’ve come from, what our family was like in previous generations, or how our ideas had developed. A world without record-keeping, without archives.
This train of thought began while I was listening to the history of Saint Francis for the New Employee Orientation — a man born in 1182 C.E. 1182. Over eight hundred years ago. How do we possibly have any reliable material or sources about a poor hermit from eight hundred years ago? How have we even built our histories of two thousand years ago?
What would our mental models be like if we had no concept of the 1920’s? Of two world wars? I wonder just how backward we would be right now if humans kept no histories. In my own imagination, we would be no better or further ahead than the earliest city developments — just a collection of people selling things, people running things, and some people growing things around the edges. In a world without any history, I imagine every day would be the same — there would never be news of new developments or inventions. There would be no newspaper / news sharing of any kind because isn’t that a form of record-keeping?
I don’t know if I could successfully map out this thought experiment in my mind. I see history everywhere – literally, everywhere. Our apartment is full of it, my very job depends on it. How would we have any universities without teaching about the past in one way or another? It’s all history. Everything we read, everything we study. How old does information have to be, to be considered history?
I’m also thinking about two very different stories — Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn and Logan’s Run by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson. In Ella Minnow Pea, a small island community has a statue of the man who came up with the phrase “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog” – a phrase famous for containing each letter of the alphabet. One day the letters on the statue start falling off and the imbecile community leaders decide this is a sign from the divine that they must stop using those letters in all communication, written and verbal. Anyone caught using the banned letters would be beaten severely, possibly die. In Logan’s Run, we see a dystopia where anyone over the age of 21 must die.
What if some administration somewhere started deciding that we had to completely remove certain years from our history? We would no longer teach or learn about 1066, when the Normans invaded England and gave to English it’s lovely French twist. We would forget all about 1865, and thus, no one would ever know what happened to that one tall President … what was his name? Or maybe we would cut out 1933 and 1934, making the whole Second World War even more bizarre and confusing than it already is.
But this is just a crazy thought experiment. A what if. The scary part about what-iffing … I always have a feeling in the back of my mind that every what-if is possible. That if I’m crazy enough to think of it, someone somewhere is crazy enough to try it.
And then that leads me to other scary thoughts … what part of history HAS been erased? What pivotal events or people HAVE been cut out from the archives and textbooks we depend upon for our cultural memory? There are plenty of articles and books out there about the manipulation of American textbooks alone. Fortunately, for most of the information left out of modern day textbooks, there are other sources to get the missing pieces. But what about history going waaayyy far back? Reading Philip Pullman’s book The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ has me second-guessing all kinds of historical moments that have become mythical for us now.
I’m very grateful to historians for keeping the curiosity alive and continuing to dig, to ask questions about the past. But at the same time, I get overwhelmed by how much we really don’t know.