WHAT AND WHY WE REMEMBER

We are a story-telling species.” Peter Feinman reminds us, “We reach out to the future and hope people will remember our present that has become their past… We want our name to be remembered, for our lives to have counted, for us to have mattered and we honor those who came before us and we hope will be honored by those who come after us. A people without stories are a people who have vanished.” (See his blog: http://newyorkhistoryblog.org/2014/10/27/memories-of-the-way-we-were-and-are/

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November is New York State History Month, and a good time to think about what stories we should tell in our schools, on our holidays, and in our commemorations about the history of our state that we hope will be remembered.

Our tremendous local history is, of course, part of that state and national history with world history implications. If we don’t tell it, the importance of what we and our ancestors did and the lessons learned here will vanish from consciousness, memory and history books.

That danger of loss is ever present despite the demonstrated interest in telling stories in so many varied ways. The effort to let future generations know that individual people existed and struggled to build our cultures has existed since cave dwellers finger painted on prehistoric walls, since architectural monuments and buildings of great beauty and size were erected in ancient civilizations, and paintings, poems, songs, statues and stories were created over the ages to reflect the beliefs and rifts that we still struggle with today.

There are some loud voices in our nation calling to educate our students on only that part of our history that glorifies us. They would prefer to erase those pieces of our history that even suggest that our people, in the name of our country, made mistakes. Sometimes those mistakes were immensely cruel ones. Unfortunately, we often must face the cruel ones to learn that we can do better.

In our own state, we see that the NYS Regents voted unanimously on Monday October 20, 2014 to reduce the history requirement for a Regents diploma. Presently, Regents require exams in U.S. history and government and another in global history and geography. Students may now opt out of one of those exams to make room for a technical career track. Further, the Global History exam will be modified to test student knowledge only on events after 1750. Thus, the early development of civilizations, ancient empires, the rise of universal religions, and trans-Atlantic Slave Trade are no longer tested. As a result, they may no longer be taught in today’s highly congested schedules.

That is not to say that a career training track isn’t important for many, but it must be recognized that a swath of understanding of our past is thereby removed for a large group of our population who are expected to help govern our future. Lessons unlearned are bound to be repeated.

And consider these items:

– The state of Maryland devoted $12 Million to commemorate the bicentennial of the War of 1812. New York spent $0. The huge impact of the Battle of Plattsburgh on today’s shape of the United States was left to the relatively small community of Plattsburgh to tell.

– The replica of Henry Hudson’s ship the Half Moon that has provided educational opportunities for a quarter century may leave New York for lack of funding.

– New York missed celebrating its 350th anniversary as an English colony last month, an event that would have provided an opportunity to commemorate New York’s historical development and achievements. Nothing happened.

It appears that if we wish to preserve our history, it is up to the locals to carry it out.

Jerry Bates

Town of Plattsburgh Historian