Reckoning with "Reckoning"--Taking Bearings (The Wild Card) by Adam M. Sowards - Issue #5
Thinking about one of my favorite words.
A few prefatory words
Thank you so much for subscribing to Taking Bearings! With this issue, I've completed one cycle of issue types (The Classroom, The Field Trip, The Library, The Wild Card). You can learn more about each type and my intentions with this newsletter by reading The Inaugural Issue where I explained my plan.
If you enjoy this, please spread the word to others who you think might benefit from or enjoy it–forward the email, share the link, post on social media. Word of mouth works best, and I depend on readers to do that.
This week’s feature is The Wild Card, and I'm using the opportunity to think through a word I use often. Read on.
Reckoning with "Reckoning"
Look at the short description of Taking Bearings and you’ll see the phrase, “using history as a tool of reckoning.”
For a couple years, I wrote a periodic column for High Country News. After mulling over several names (I think Bearings was one!), the editor-in-chief and I landed on “Reckoning with History.” If you read those articles, you’ll find a “reckon” or “reckoning” in many, if not most, of them.
I edited a book on Idaho history almost a decade ago. I titled the Introduction I wrote for it, “Reckoning with History.”
If you read my writing, you’ll see I drop “reckon” in regularly.
Why? (I assure you it’s not because I’m channeling cowboys from old Western films.)
I have found the word useful and have thought of “reckoning” along two related lines. I’ve wanted to think through those ways explicitly for some time. Here’s an attempt.
Reckoning (Meaning 1)
First, history, our collective past, has produced the world where we live. The legacies of past choices are what we face today. To understand a whole variety of political, social, or environmental circumstances that surround us and threaten to engulf us, we have to deal with that past. Others decided things when living their lives and planning for their future, a future that is our present.
When I selected history as my college major, I did so because I thought it helped me understand the present best. And so, to understand the news, the layout of neighborhoods, the economic and demographic distribution of resources and people, the way our rivers and forests and deserts look, we have to reckon with their history and the choices made about them. The world is not a tabula rasa or terra nullius.
One of the easiest examples to see how the past produces long-lasting outcomes is redlining, which shows how racist government policies and lending practices ensured segregated neighborhoods and erected steep barriers to African Americans acquiring wealth. To understand (much less solve) poverty and residential patterns today we must search policies and practices of many decades before. Solutions do not always flow straight from understanding the history, but to skip understanding problems’ sources is an error.
Side Note: A provocative article that I have taught that shows how to use history to understand a problem but uses other types of reasoning to advocate for solutions is Ta-Nehisi Coates’s 2014 Atlantic article, “The Case for Reparations.”
The Case for Reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates - The Atlantic — www.theatlantic.com Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.
To reckon with history in this sense is to take stock, to calculate, to find your position (as in taking your bearings!). It proceeds from the assumption that the past influences today. Inequality today is a result of multiple historical events. If we wish to address inequality, we’d better understand the history of it.
Or to use an environmental example: If we wish to address, say, the challenge of fires in our forests, we'd better understand how forests have changed and how policies around fires have changed and how people's values and uses of forests and fires have changed.
(Let me hasten to add, the past is not the only thing to understand.)
One of my college professors told me—and I repeat it frequently—“A good historian, when asked to predict the future, will always decline and say, ‘I only predict the past.’” We cannot know the future, and we historians may not be great policymakers. (The historian William Cronon in a classic article in my field noted that historians speak in parables, not policy prescriptions.) But having historians around offers decisionmakers a voice of conscience and knowledge of the past, both of which may be useful.
Politicians and administrators are not in the business of passing laws that change the past (except for the most intrusive legislators seeking to change or eliminate the history taught in public schools—but that’s a topic for a different newsletter). They are passing laws to change the future based on their understanding of the present. (This is a crude formulation, but it is serviceable.) But a historian in the room—or the public square—might keep how we got here in mind.
To reckon with history is to see the world today and ask how it got here looking like it does.
Reckoning (Meaning 2)
My second use of “reckoning” is related, obviously, but it remains distinct in my mind. History is the tool I use to figure (many) things out. It might be useful to put the emphasis in a different place for this meaning: reckoning with history. There are other tools available. One could reckon with economics. One could reckon with sociology. One could reckon with engineering. And so on. These disciplines furnish specific ideas and methods to investigate problems. A historian would not use a regression analysis (or probably be able to tell you what that even is), but an economist might. So reckoning with history as a discipline requires using its unique and distinct way of encountering evidence.
So, what is that?
This is no place to offer a full-fledged methodological lesson. But let me borrow a shorthand list co-developed by a friend and colleague, Flannery Burke (and Taking Bearings subscriber!). In a short article, she and her co-author Thomas Andrews described the “five C’s of historical thinking.”
Change over Time
To reckon with history, to reckon using history, then, is to track change within specific contexts to search for the multiple factors that cause change recognizing that all people/events/forces/etc. are contingent on all the other ones in complicated intersections of factors. That’s a mouthful--and mind-ful. If you are so inclined, I recommend reading the full article for deeper explanations.
You’ll note, the 5 C’s are not a formula in which you put in simple evidence and variables to get straightforward answers. They are, almost, a temperament, a worldview, a stance you take when you encounter the past in its many guises.
I might add that I think all of this work begins with humility. Historians develop a great familiarity with the past, and in doing so, they come to recognize the endless complexity of past people. Judgment comes easy. Condemnation comes easy. Praise comes easy. Understanding—even partial understanding—is hard. So, when we are at our best, historians approach our work humbly.
To use history to reckon, to use history as the tool of investigation, is to bring humility to your curiosity and a deep recognition that every moment contains multitudes and to capture a sliver of them demands empathy, care, and critical eyes.
And one more thing: The prodigious and prizewinning author Robert A. Caro shared advice he learned early on as a journalist: “Turn every page. Never assume anything.” You cannot reckon if you are not careful, critical, and complete.
It is hard, serious work—both of these reckonings. But worth it. How else are we to understand this time, this place, ourselves?
As always, you can find my books and books where some of my work is included at my Bookshop affiliate page (where, if you order, I get a small benefit).
And those "Reckoning with History" columns with High Country News? They are collected here:
Taking Bearings Next Week
Next week, I'll start the cycle over again with The Classroom. I'll move away from this philosophical musing and get back to straight history. The lesson will center on a single year in the nineteenth century that I think can teach us a lot.
Thank you for reading and please consider passing this along to friends who might also find it worthwhile.