State Historian and Georgetown College professor James Klotter believes history is not about the past, but the future. In his opinion, we, as a state, do not arrive at some random place of strain, strife, or success by coincidence, but by a sequence of events — natural or contrived — that derive from history. Acknowledging that, says Klotter, is how we forge a path to a brighter, collective future.
Famed poet, novelist, and Henry County farmer Wendell Berry would not disagree. In fact, Berry has suggested that Kentucky doesn’t take responsibility for its history and is endangering the humanities by overemphasizing moneymaking STEM disciplines: science, technology, engineering, and math.
Both Berry and Klotter contend that Kentuckians should treat the past like it belongs to them personally and learn from it. That’s one of the messages they will share Saturday at the Kentucky History Center’s Boone Day celebration marking the state’s 222nd birthday. I have the honor of moderating a conversation between the two gentlemen.
Berry, an ardent defender of sustainable agriculture and food systems, will likely lament industrialization and land-use policies that he believes have replaced people with technology and defaced our landscapes. I expect him to posit that ignorance of history is no excuse to defile nature for the sake of profit. Yet, if a greater allegiance to history existed, he might contend that our connectedness to the land – and the culture of belonging to it – would make us better stewards.
I will ask Berry and Klotter about harnessing the power of history to address enduring issues. We’ll also discuss the ramifications of not knowing our history. Klotter has written about Kentucky’s “lost opportunities” when powerbrokers and policymakers failed to act, or when their actions failed because they didn’t learn history’s lessons.
History is powerful, but it’s in need of a better marketing campaign. The word itself conjures up school nights toiling to memorize dates and timelines. In my day, we learned history by rote, not by connection. Our session Saturday is about inspiring a personal relevance to history and stoking the curiosity to mine it.
The conversation with Mr. Berry and Dr. Klotter should encourage us to deputize ourselves as historians – to dig into our family and community lineage and tell the story of our whole selves.
As the saying goes, if we don’t know our history we will be doomed to repeat it.
[Read a summary of the discussion between Berry and Klotter at the Kentucky History Center.]