Saturday, March 7, 2009

The "how" versus the "who" of history.

At a conference that I recently attended a presenter mentioned that he had always been more interested in the how of history rather than the who of history. By this statement I think he meant that he wants to know how people of the past lived, rather than who they were or might have become; a sort of new social history versus biography way of thinking in my mind. I found this to be an interesting thought and one that I pondered on my 60 mile drive back home in the rain. But, after thinking more about it, I am not so sure that the how and the who can be separated, or at the least, they are not as mutually exclusive in my thinking as he made them out to be.

He had explained that he had gotten into Civil War reenacting to learn the how of Civil War soldiers; for example, how they cooked their food, how they felt marching with their equipment, how they must have interacted with their comrades. I too have reenacted, and I agree there is no better way to understand their lives than to literally put yourself in their shoes as closely as possible. I have experienced the things he mentioned plus...the frustration of trying to make a campfire in a downpour, being soaked with sweat from a quick march in 90 degree heat, and feeling the concussion from numbers of artillery right beside I understand what he means by the thrilling notion of learning the how of history.

But to me, the who of history is important as well, and is interwoven into the how of history. In my thinking, one has to have a who to generate a how. It doesn't have to be a famous who, but the whos are significant...quite possibly indispensable. It is the whos' past actions that create history. In many cases the whos become famous, because lets face it, people rarely remember whos who don't do something important, but if the new social history movement since World War II has proven anything, (and it has) it has shown that little whos of the past tell us a lot about who we are today. Happy thinking!!!

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