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Leaving A Trace

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We are the future’s past. That can be hard to wrap your mind around—particularly for young people. So when I teach intro-level college history courses, I like to do a quick thought experiment on the first day of every semester. It goes something like this:

Never mind how it happened—but imagine for a moment that when you wake up tomorrow, it’s actually 100 years in the future. You’re still you, but everything else is different. It would take some time to verify that you’re not dreaming or crazy, process the shock of everyone you know being dead, and escape the evil scientists trying to put you in a lab.

But once you get your bearings and make some friends, you begin to notice things. Like: Future People live in caves because the planet’s surface is too hot to sustain life. Future pizza uses vegan mayonnaise because tomato sauce is too expensive. The next frontier of consumer electronics is wifi that can penetrate 100 feet of bedrock. Most of your new pals have never actually touched a living tree. Things aren’t great!

Turns out, Future People also have some interesting thoughts on how it all got this way. Mostly, they blame you. Not personally maybe, but your generation. If you and your friends hadn’t been so busy doing the Phinckledink—which was all the rage from 2015 until 2023—you could have done something before it was too late. But you didn’t, and now pizza is awful.

Wait a minute, you might say. I’m only 18 years old! I’m not—I mean, I wasn’t—in charge of anything! My own family never listened to me! I haven’t even voted yet. How was I supposed to stop climate change? Also, the “Phinckledink” was not a thing.

Besides, you might also say, it wasn’t just my generation. They’d known about climate change for decades before I was born! Lots of people tried to do something. There were treaties, and electric cars, and some guy named Al Gore made a movie! It was more complicated!

But as luck would have it, at that exact moment, you’re transported back to your home time period, before you have a chance to explain why they’ve got it—and you—all wrong.

It may seem silly, but there is a point to this flight of fancy. The goal is to get young people to wrestle with the kinds of questions that typically occur to us only later in life: about historical agency and complexity, and about our legacies. Young people typically have not yet developed the sense of their own impermanence—of historical humility—that comes with age and experience. But they can use their imaginations to envision a time in which they, along with everyone and everything they know, have passed into the custody of future historians. Many are disturbed just by the notion that their own lives and eras could be so misremembered by future generations. So this thought experiment helps them better contextualize why we so carefully study those who came before us, and how doing so helps us better understand ourselves.

But these reminders of history’s utility in communicating across generations apply to the rest of us as well. The fidelity we owe to the past mirrors the clarity we owe to the future. So when you commission a professional historian to research and create your family or organizational history, you do more than merely celebrate the worth and value of your achievements. You gift the knowledge of yourself to the future. You contribute to the historical record a piece of documentary context that will help make better sense of us all. You ensure that your corner of the world—your area of responsibility—has been duly and faithfully recorded. You communicate. It is an act of community and generosity that can span centuries.

Future historians will thank you for it, even if future college freshmen might not.

-crossposted from Historicity Blog

Eric Busch

2300 Red River Street, University of Texas at Austin, TX, 78712

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