Bruce Dearstyne: Putting History to Work

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NYS MapOne of the ways of demonstrating the work we do is to show the value of history for revealing historical precedents, insights or parallels which help shed light on current issues. We might call it “putting history to work.”

Four examples from the past few weeks:

*Is political ethics reform really new?

On August 24 governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill to restrict campaign contributions as a means of dealing with corruption in the legislature. New York “needed ethics reform so people knew they could trust Albany and this is a great first step.” But is this new law really a “first step?” In fact, the first state ethics legislation banning political contributions by corporations, and requiring candidates and political committees to file reports on their campaign receipts and expenditures, dates from 1906. Since then, the laws have been amended many times and impacted by court decisions.

History suggests that passing one more piece of restrictive legislation may not have much impact on corruption in Albany.

*How should New York pay for the Erie Canal?

The state Canal Corporation says that the Erie Canal accounts for $400 million in tourism spending annually and $6.3 billion in non-tourism economic activity. The Barge Canal — the Erie’s mainline from Waterford to Tonawanda — recently achieved National Historic Landmark status.

But in an August 10 federal court decision invalidating the state’s policy of funding the canal from Thruway tolls since 1992, judge Colleen McMahon called funding the canal through the Thruway Authority an “anachronistic burden.” “The Canal system is a jewel in the crown of the Empire State, and some combination of New York taxpayers, local businesses benefitting from tourism revenue and the actual users of the Canal System’s many facilities should want to pay for its upkeep,” her decision said. “The State of New York cannot insulate the Canal System from the vagaries of the political process and taxpayer preferences by imposing the cost of its upkeep on those who drive the New York Thruway in interstate commerce.”

The decision came as a result of a lawsuit by the American Trucking Associations which contended that part of the tolls truckers paid to use the Thruway had been unfairly diverted to maintain the canal. According to news reports, truckers may now try to get the courts to give them a rebate of the tolls that have flowed to the canal system for years. Perhaps in anticipation of the outcome of the truckers’ lawsuit, in the 2016 budget there was a provision to shift funding for the canal system to the State Power Authority beginning next year.

New York has been debating how to fund its canals since the initiation of the Erie in 1817 (funded through state bonds). In 1842, after the Comptroller warned that overspending on canals and aid to railroads had brought the state to “the very brink of dishonor and bankruptcy” and it is “a question of solvency or insolvency,” the legislature enacted a special tax to keep the state afloat. In 1895, the state appropriated $9 million, a huge sum in those days, to broaden and deepen the channel. The project was brought to an end in 1898 amid charges of fraud and corruption, with much of the work undone. In 1992, the Comptroller cautioned against shifting canal costs to the Thruway Authority.

More study of the history of the canal, particularly state funding vs. economic benefits, would shed light on how to maintain the canal in the future.

*Who is responsible for toxic sites?

The State Senate held a hearing on September 1 in Hoosick Falls on contamination of water supplies there with the chemical PFOA. Much of the discussion has been over who is responsible. Saint-Gobain, the company that allegedly polluted the wells through the use of the chemical in manufacturing processes in Hoosick Falls (and elsewhere) has discontinued its use and picked up part of the tab for installing filters and other remedial work, but without admitting liability. The State Health Department and federal EPA have been trading accusations over whether standards were clear enough and people were warned about the risks in a timely fashion.

It is all reminiscent of the health crisis at Love Canal in Niagara Falls in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. People living in houses built on an abandoned and covered-over landfill used by Hooker Chemical to dump toxic substances experienced health problems. After two years of desultory discussion, the state and federal governments in 1980 divided the costs of buying up and tearing down contaminated homes, moving people, and capping the site. Years later, the state and federal governments both sued Hooker Chemical (later Occidental Petroleum). The company’s defense was that the dumping was legal at the time it was carried out. But in the end, the company agreed to pay huge fines to both the state and federal governments.

Can the Love Canal crisis (and other past environmental emergencies) provide guidance on how the PFOA issue at Hoosick Falls (and possibly other affected sites) should be addressed?

*Who should clean up polluted waterways?

For several years, General Electric has paid to clean hazardous PCB’s from the upper Hudson River, which were dumped there years ago by a GE plant. GE says the work has been completed. But New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has asked the federal EPA to postpone certifying that the work has been completed satisfactorily and determines whether fish from the Hudson are fit to eat again. In the meantime, the state is also drawing up plans to dredge PCB’s from the Champlain Canal that GE also allegedly dumped there. It is expected cost around $180 million. All of the state’s “legal options are on the table as to who pays for it,” New York’s DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos said last month.

These are difficult issues with implications for people’s health and well-being. In deciding them, would it be helpful to study past New York waterway pollutions policies, going back to the state’s first Water Pollution Control Act in 1949, or back of that, to the first gubernatorial order mandating cleanup of a polluted stream, in 1899?

More historical mindfulness needed

There are other examples in the news just about every day where historical insight would help. This points toward the need for more of what might be called “historical mindedness” in public debates of critical issues.

It means understanding the relevance of the past to the present.

“So long as the past and the present are outside one another, knowledge of the past is not of much use in the problems of the present,” wrote British philosopher and historian R.G. Collingwood in his 1946 book The Idea of History. “But suppose the past lives on in the present; suppose, though encapsulated in it, and at first sight hidden beneath the present’s contradictory and more prominent features, it is still alive and active; then the historian may very well be related to the non-historian as the trained woodsman is to the ignorant traveler. ‘Nothing here but trees and grass’, thinks the traveler, and marches on. ‘Look’, says the woodsman, ‘there is a tiger in that grass’.”

“History…can have real significance in the present….Professional historians…must do our best to raise the public awareness of the past with all its richness and complexity,” says Margaret MacMillan in her book Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History (2008). Knowing history can help avoid lazy generalizations.”

She continues that “history can help us to be wise; it can also suggest to us what the likely outcome of our actions might be. There are no clear blueprints to be discovered in history that can help us shape the future as we wish. Each historical event is a unique congeries [sic] of factors, people, or chronology. Yet by examining the past, we can get some useful lessons about how to proceed and some warning about what is or is not likely to happen….History, if it used with care, can present us with alternatives, help us to form the questions we need to ask of the present, and warn us about what might go wrong…”

“History, by giving context and examples, helps when it comes to thinking about the present world. It aids in formulating questions, and without good questions, it is difficult to begin to think in a coherent way at all. Knowledge of history suggests what sort of information might be needed to answer those questions,” MacMillan says “Knowledge of the past helps us to challenge dogmatic statements and sweeping generalizations.”

“We know the future only by the past we project into it,” says John Gaddis in The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past (2002). “History in this sense is all we have.”

Historians “interpret the past for the purposes of the present with a view to managing the future but do so without suspending the capacity to assess the particular circumstances in which one might have to act, or the relevance of past actions to them,” says Gaddis.

“It helps us all think more clearly,” MacMillan concludes.

We need to be more emphatic in asserting history’s role in bringing more clarity to complex public issues.

Ratcheting up program relevance

This leads to a final point: the need to keep our historical museums, historical societies, and other public history programs vibrant and relevant.

Of course, there are many examples of dynamic programs continually in evidence in posts here on the New York History Blog, which is another piece of evidence about how essential this blog is to New York’s historical enterprise.

But there is a new book that might be of particular interest to many of the readers of this blog — Nina Simon’s The Art of Relevance. You can buy it or read selected chapters free online by clicking on that link and others are featured as previews over the past few months in her blog, Museum 2.0 Simon’s previous book, The Participatory Museum, described how to engage users in shaping museum programs as well as benefitting from them. The new book includes cultural institutions well beyond history programs. But it offers lots of advice and examples on how to make programs visible, increase engagement with audiences, and make programs matter to people. For our programs, the insights can be applied to “putting history to work.”

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Bruce Dearstyne

About Bruce Dearstyne

Dr. Bruce W. Dearstyne served on the staff of the New York State Office of State History and the State Archives. He was a professor and is now an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland’s College of Information Studies and has written widely about New York history and occasionally writes about New York history issues for the “Perspective” section of the Sunday Albany Times Union. Bruce is the author of two books published in 2015: The Spirit of New York: Defining Events in the Empire State’s History (SUNY Press) and also Leading the Historical Enterprise: Strategic Creativity, Planning and Advocacy for the Digital Age (Rowman and Littlefield and the AASLH). He can bereached at

2 thoughts on “Bruce Dearstyne: Putting History to Work

  1. Gayle Ann Livecchia

    I think part of keeping local history vibrant is encouraging people in these groups to participate in the larger history community. I have mentioned to several people to the need to form a mentor program between academics and public historians, local historians, and other individuals unfamiliar with conference presentation. People at the local level seem to think that a book is their sole route for documenting local history, but a book can be daunting, and expensive. Presenting a paper at a conference can share the story. It is an affordable way to share and document the history. Guiding people through the paper process demystifies the process, and eliminates the myth that one must have advanced degrees to present, and attend, a conference. And, a paper is much shorter than a book.

    However, conferences are now geared to panel submissions because it makes life easier for organizers. What it does is silence the independent researchers, who are the gatekeepers of the details. I used a quilt example in describing this problem earlier today. We focus on the quilt blocks, ignoring the tiny stitches that hold it together and make if functional. When we ignore the details, homeowners find a prison cemetery in their yard. If the independent researchers are silenced, how will their work be shared or remembered? This new trend also implies that only academics are capable of research, and everyone knows that belief is a myth. I have been at too many presentations where presenters did nothing more than read their paper, in a dry monotone, without so much as a PowerPoint slide. If they are unable to talk about the subject without their paper, they ought not to be talking about it at all, as they obviously know little about the topic.

    If we expect these organizations to be vibrant, we must give them a larger voice. Researchers must share their work. We must give them a place to speak. That said, the other side of the equation is that they must participate. It is sad to attend a conference, and see no public historians and only a few historical societies present, especially when one considers how many groups are within a short driving distance.

  2. Pingback: Initiatives for Putting History to Work | The New York History Blog

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