Look at the short description of Taking Bearings and you’ll see the phrase, “using history as a tool of reckoning.”
For a couple years, I wrote a periodic column for High Country News
. After mulling over several names (I think Bearings was one!), the editor-in-chief and I landed on “Reckoning
with History.” If you read those articles, you’ll find a “reckon” or “reckoning” in many, if not most, of them.
I edited a book on Idaho history
almost a decade ago. I titled the Introduction I wrote for it, “Reckoning
If you read my writing, you’ll see I drop “reckon” in regularly.
Why? (I assure you it’s not because I’m channeling cowboys from old Western films.)
I have found the word useful and have thought of “reckoning” along two related lines. I’ve wanted to think through those ways explicitly for some time. Here’s an attempt.
Reckoning (Meaning 1)
First, history, our collective past, has produced the world where we live. The legacies of past choices are what we face today. To understand a whole variety of political, social, or environmental circumstances that surround us and threaten to engulf us, we have to deal with that past. Others decided things when living their lives and planning for their future, a future that is our present.
When I selected history as my college major, I did so because I thought it helped me understand the present best. And so, to understand the news, the layout of neighborhoods, the economic and demographic distribution of resources and people, the way our rivers and forests and deserts look, we have to reckon with their history and the choices made about them. The world is not a tabula rasa or terra nullius.
One of the easiest examples to see how the past produces long-lasting outcomes is redlining, which shows how racist government policies and lending practices ensured segregated neighborhoods and erected steep barriers to African Americans acquiring wealth. To understand (much less solve) poverty and residential patterns today we must search policies and practices of many decades before. Solutions do not always flow straight from understanding the history, but to skip understanding problems’ sources is an error.
Side Note: A provocative article that I have taught that shows how to use history to understand a problem but uses other types of reasoning to advocate for solutions is Ta-Nehisi Coates’s 2014 Atlantic article, “The Case for Reparations.”