Opinion: Daily Journal

A New Window Into History

This week’s “Daily Journal” guest columnist is Troy Kickler, Director of the North Carolina History Project.

Knowing that the past is a part of us, the John Locke Foundation in August 2005 launched the North Carolina History Project to ask free market questions about the past, to study how North Carolina society was created and has changed, and to help develop a historical consciousness. In March 2006, NCHP introduced an evolving encyclopedia of the Tar Heel state called NorthCarolinaHistory.org.

In a modern world many times obsessed with the present, historians are often asked to defend their occupational choice. Many of my former and current students, who think the sole purpose of an education is to find employment, have asked countless times: “Why study history?” or “What benefit is a history degree?”

Because they want a practical answer, I usually list examples of historians working in fields other than teaching. Then I describe how the study of history develops analytical, interpretive, research, and writing skills—in essence, prepares them to excel in any career.

But history is far more practical and important than that. Humans are remembering creatures. History is what we do. Whether we write daily in our diaries, read the latest university press publications, or recall the good times we had with friends last Friday night, we are historians. The study of history, then, helps make us fully human.

History also helps us understand how societies form and how people live in them. As historian Peter Stearns writes, “[History] offers the only extensive evidential base for the contemplation of how societies function.” It provides an understanding of social and economic change and their effects, too. Equally important, it develops a historical consciousness that draws us out of ourselves and makes us aware of how history influences the present and is never dead.

Although most historians agree why history is important, the historical profession has recently minimized the importance of the individual and ideas. It has been more concerned with “movements” and “systems” and thereby overemphasized abstract social and economic forces. It has also been materialist, dismissing ideas as a motivating factor of life. The effect is far-reaching, but I’ll give two examples.

Such methodologies overlook entrepreneurs, argues historian Larry Schweikart, and foster “a presumption that government should perform all societal functions.” Textbooks also overlook, Professor David E. Harrell points out, that American political debate has always been conducted “in language laced with religious assumptions and terminology.”

So, why start the North Carolina History Project? To compensate for the cultural losses just listed and to ask different historical questions. In doing so, NCHP seeks to understand how North Carolina society came to be, how North Carolinians have lived, and how change has affected the everyday lives of Tar Heels. NCHP also hopes to reclaim the importance of the individual and ideas: namely, to treat historical figures as individuals and not social categories, to emphasize the spirit of entrepreneurship and North Carolinians’ defense of liberty, and to show how individuals, communities, and families have solved problems.

NorthCarolinaHistory.org will showcase much of this research. The web site features an evolving and non-polemical encyclopedia that emphasizes the importance of the individual and ideas. In particular, it includes entries of entrepreneurs and champions of liberty from colonial days to the present. Because all Tar Heels have contributed to what is good in our state, entry authors, including professors of North Carolina history, necessarily interweave historical themes such as African American and entrepreneurship history. Two upcoming themes are the religious influences of the pre-Revolution Regulator rebellions and Jeffersonians of the early republic era.

NorthCarolinaHistory.org is more than an encyclopedia. In the commentary section, writers offer historical interpretations, make historiographical arguments, and search for moral lessons that history provides us today. In the educator’s corner, teachers can use appropriate lessons that incorporate many of the entries. Political cartoons and primary sources will soon be posted in hopes that educators can foster classroom discussions. Free of charge, historical museums, parks, and societies can submit announcements to be posted on the community calendar.

In short, the John Locke Foundation and its North Carolina History Project are reviving interest in important historical topics and giving due attention to undervalued and understudied subjects. JLF and NCHP offer anyone interested in North Carolina and United States history a first-class and one-of-a-kind site: NorthCarolinaHistory.org.