Avoiding a Pandemic of Historical Thought

By John Heckman – The Tattooed Historian

John Heckman is better known to online audiences as “The Tattooed Historian.” After obtaining his graduate degree in history and working alongside the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, John began his brand of history in 2015 and sought to help the history field reach new and more diverse audiences. Through his work across many social media platforms, as well as his podcast (The Tattooed Historian Show), John has had the opportunity to work with universities, not for profit organizations, the U.S. National Park Service, the U.S. Department of Defense, and many more in the United States and Canada to ensure that the past is not forgotten. He currently resides in Pennsylvania.

Something that I have learned while enduring the pandemic which still haunts our day-to-day lives is that events such as this expose who we are as a people. Our public health crisis has uncovered a crisis within us. We, as a society, are sometimes more concerned with convenience rather than patience. We are prone to losing our temper because of the challenges we face along the way. COVID-19 has shown me the good, the bad, and the downright ugly within ourselves as humans.

How are we to navigate the new world which will be thrust upon us after the pandemic is over? Granted, we are still weaving our way through various re-opening plans and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. But the world afterwards may be somewhat different. Our attitudes towards large crowds, small venues, even hugs with friends could be seen as anxiety-inducing things. As we navigate our way out of a pandemic, how are we going to navigate our way into a broader understanding of who we are?

The new world which may come from our shared experiences could impact us for another generation or more. I see an overlap between health and the humanities in the fight for a stronger populace. Much like was said of the pandemic in the great article on Defining Moments Canada’s website entitled, ‘How COVID Can Re-Shape Education’, “Treating the conditions medically is necessary, of course, but not sufficient; the solutions must go beyond vaccines or medications, and tackle the underlying socio-economic conditions that give rise to these disease interactions.” These underlying conditions also inhibit empathetic understanding of the historical narrative, how we perceive the past, and how we interact with those of various demographics. So not only should we worry about treating the next wave of COVID, we should also worry about treating the past with its just respect alongside the mutual respect of each other.

While we are progressing through what we hope are the final stages of this pandemic, let us not slip into a pandemic of historical thought. There are going to be some hard truths and some moments when we will be uncomfortable. Healthy, fact-based discussions about our past are good for society; loud, factually ignorant, and reactionary opinions do nothing to secure the health of public history. Indeed, public history needs a shot in the arm of its own!

Have you ever been sitting in traffic and the person in front of you could turn right on a red light, but they don’t? Perhaps they sit there with their turn signal on, but believe that they must wait for a green light to execute the turn? Meanwhile, the cars are lining up behind you and now you are trapped in the mass of traffic. There is no pathway forward, and you cannot go back because you will be getting further away from your destination. So, there are two options in this scenario: lay on your horn and yell at the driver in front of you or have some patience until the light turns green. If you do the former, you may startle the other driver causing them to pull out into a dangerous situation. In the latter, you are giving them the benefit of the doubt and understanding that sometimes progress takes a little patience and caution.

Right now, we’re stuck in traffic; and some people are becoming impatient. We are being bombarded by matters of health and historical issues concurrently. The news of the conditions at Residential Schools in Canada and the United States has showcased that we need to have a healthy conversation about the past while we have a healthy conversation about our personal health. It is critical that societies do not allow the pathways to historical knowledge and truth to be inhibited by the infection of denial and dismissiveness.

Some who sit in this traffic jam will honk their horns and yell because we mention something which to them seems to be holding us up. That is why it is the job of good public education to create a pathway forward based on knowledge, not hyperbole. As historians, we are trained to embrace the historical narrative, for better or for worse, and tell the story the best way that we can.

So, when does it become a pandemic of historical thought, as I called it earlier? First, it can happen when we don’t listen to understand, we listen to respond; we listen to react. This health crisis has a lot of us on edge and we sometimes become agitated that, yet another curveball has been tossed our way by the historical understandings (or misunderstandings) of those around us. It is vital that the humanities remain a place where hard truths are told freely and without fear of repercussions.

Second, when we seek out vital information, it should not be in a linear fashion. For example, when you look something up online, perhaps you go to sources which make your argument in the easiest manner possible. But in doing so, you don’t look at who the author is, who the intended audience is to be, the construction of the piece, and so on. Someone can just “take their word for it.” That is not good history; that’s propaganda. When we simply seek to connect our predetermined conclusions with whatever fits the narrative, we’re not learning, we’re espousing shallow ideas. Instead of seeking the information in a linear fashion, go lateral! Ask yourself, “Who wrote this piece?” “What is their purpose in writing this?” “Who are they seeking to communicate with?”

Finally, we run into a pandemic of historical thought when we cut funding to the places of importance to the social sciences. The inoculation to prevent this kind of pandemic costs money, whether that be to make repairs to a historical home, new equipment in archival settings to prevent mold, or preservation work on cemeteries. In some corners of our society, funds have been stripped away from projects which detail the historical narrative and that has led to a decline in the health of some facets of the history field.

Defining Moments Canada has been one of the voices leading the charge towards giving the humanities a shot in the arm. Through the means of curatorial thinking, outlined brilliantly on DMC’s website, all of us can become better stewards of the past. We can permit the historical narrative to have a vibrant traffic flow of its own by simply doing a few steps. If you want to see more of this in action, checkout the Teaching VEDay section online. After you look through these resources, ask how you can help do something similar for others, or lend a hand as a volunteer for those who create these fantastic assets to the past.

What should we do to increase our aptitude at curatorial thinking? First, look at the relevance and usefulness of primary source documents. Remember, a primary source is a document which offers direct evidence of a historical era; they are created at the time or by the people who lived through it. Next, make sure you maintain these artifacts of history in a responsible way and determine if they are great pieces of information. Then examine the data from each source. Does it make the connections apparent when seeking to understand more about the past? Is it relevant to your goal? How can you use it to help others understand history? Finally, share what you have learned with others in a meaningful and authentic way.

We all have various ways to share what we have learned. In my case, I decided to transfer the educational experience from a more traditional classroom environment to social media. After building something which has brought me great joy, I have found that it has helped inspire others to build online communities as well to talk about the past. I never knew that I would light that spark within people to reach for new goals, but I’m certainly honoured to have been a part of that process. Perhaps you could do the same as well in your own manner. You could start a podcast, write a blog, or post some amazing photos online from historical sites. The beauty of the process of sharing what you learned is that it is your process. Your voice and your style are unique; go share the history with others and create that community dialogue.

When you do this, you help open new pathways for the traffic around you, and those who have yet to come to this intersection in life. We are at a crossroads of understanding who we truly are as a people. Remember that we may focus on where we are going when we are driving, but we must check our mirrors to look back from time to time. It is right and honourable to consider where we came from to understand where we are going.