Historians love to talk about the “so what.” This is a good book about refurbished historic homes on Providence’s Benefit Street, you say? Well, so what? If it’s just a series of fawning descriptions, it’s fluff. But if it’s an argument about preservation, or about the multivocal immigrant histories those restored facades might be obscuring, well then, see, we’ve got a “so what.”
But if the “so what” is a useful tool in talking about historical arguments, it sure has a sharp edge. My problem is that I can’t help but ask the same question of myself, pretty much all the time. Why do history? Why read these books? Why bother at all to consider history as a facet of modern life? I just finished a book tonight on ethnic cleansing in Europe in the twentieth century. Turns out this author sees elements that transcend the particularism of ethnic cleansing as a phenomenon that flared in Germany and Poland in 1939-1945, in the Soviet North Caucasus and the Crimea in 1945, in Poland and Czechoslovakia in the wake of Germany’s defeat. Sounds good, author. Bravo. But I have to ask: so what?
But sometimes I come across answers. Ned Kaufman, in an essay that concludes a book on the history of preservation in America, offers this civic-minded “so what”:
“Many Americans can afford to take their heritage, or history, more or less for granted. An increasing number cannot and will not. African Americans, for example, whether descendants of southern plantation slaves or free blacks in seventeenth-century New York, have a stake in the accurate presentation of American history, one that records both their sufferings and contributions, and sometimes that simply acknowledges their presence. Many other groups in American society have a similar interest, not in order to complain (or boast) but because history offers a way to establish a presence within the public space of political and cultural discourse…and without presence, one can hardly hope for leverage. History can’t provide adequate housing, end discrimination, or prevent redevelopment, but it can contribute to the debate that is necessary to achieving these goals.” *
That’s the “so what.”
*Page, Max and Randall Mason. Giving Preservation a History: Histories of Historic Preservation in the United States. New York: Routledge, 2004.