Wednesday, May 31, 2006

On life and history...

I spent most of my life being a historian - teaching, practicing, and writing history as well as advocating for history and the historical profession. In recent months I've been trying to leave the "work" part of that life behind me, but friends inevitably call with ideas or I read something here or there that sparks my interest.

Today two things happened.

First, I got a call from Dan Berman at the California PUC, co-author of Who Own's the Sun, which by pure coincidence was published 1997, the same year as my book, Energy and the Making of Modern California. Dan is an indefatigable advocate for public power, working hard today to facilitate the extension of the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) to Davis, Woodland, and West Sacramento. The public power election comes up in November.

Back in the day, when I was writing a lot about energy history, he had me up to give a talk to the PUC staff. Now he called just to say he still looks at my book - got important stuff in it that you just can't find anywhere else. Dan made me feel pretty good about myself, which is a hell of a nice gift for someone to give someone else.

When he asked if I'd been doing more, the best I could do was point him to a little essay on the history of energy on the Franklin Institute website.

The second thing that happened today was my being reminded by Richard White, a fellow historian just up the road at Stanford University, that "History is a habit of mind and not a collection of facts." In a piece entitled Border Crossing, about the immigration debate and what historians might contribute to it (or not), he observes: "Except for the immigrants themselves, the current public discussion usually involves the usual suspects and is idiotically simple. It is about principles: secure borders and punishing lawbreakers on one side and economic justice and the rights to citizenship on the other. Or, alternatively, it is about economic calculations: immigrants do or do not help the economy." The problem, says White, is that the past contains "a nuanced and complex world [that appeals] to practice more than principles."

"A public debate more informed by the complexity of family stories and actual practices of our past would be a better debate, but settling for that is a cliché. If ... the take home lesson for historians was that we should be presenting the public with the facts about past immigration laws and the experiences of past immigrants because this would lead to more informed and better decisions, then [we] would come perilously close to what I have come to think of as the Millard Fillmore fallacy. Whenever I hear someone complaining about Americans' ignorance of history, I think of Millard Fillmore. Would this be a better country if every American knew about Millard Fillmore? I may be going out on a limb here, but I don't think so.

"But we might be a better country, and better citizens, if we spent less time thinking about easy principles and more time thinking about complicated practices. The best source of complicated practices is the past. History is a habit of mind and not a collection of facts. ... The hard part is figuring out how to put this knowledge into collective public practice."


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