Interesting Thoughts

“The assumption has been that because teachers have studied ideas longer, they understand them better and are therefore better able to communicate (transmit) them.  Epistemologically, it assumes knowledge is an object that can be conveyed and owned by individuals, which assumes that students can come to know the world as the teacher does.  That assumption further assumes that students want to know the world as the teacher does.  But do they, and if so, why?”

– From the Preface to Theoretical Foundations of Learning Environments by Jonassen & Land (2000)


I was listening to some medieval music the other day (yes, it might be a history person thing).  Though I was really enjoying it, I noticed was that the music was being played on contemporary instruments.  This gave the music a different sound than when I had heard the same piece played earlier on period instruments.  I began thinking about how “more authentic” using the older instruments was because that was how the people who originally composed and listened to the music being performed would have heard it.  The more I thought about it though, the more I realized that no matter what instruments are played, we cannot remove the “modern us” from the equation.  How different, often, are our expectations for music (instant access, performers can re-record as many times as necessary, etc.).  How different are the environments in which we hear it (concert hall, CD player in the car, iPod, and so on).  Finally, we can never erase the sense that we are listening to something historic, a product of a place and time that is not now.  No matter what, I listen with a modern mind and consequently, modern ears.  But I still listen appreciatively.

Headline of 1920 U.S. Census Form

I was working in a local archive the other day, looking for some information about the original owner of a historic property. My search for information led me to the census records, which I accessed via an internet database. I had some extra time, so I thought I would see if I could find some information about my grandfather’s family, which none of the relatives seems to know much about.

With a few clicks of the mouse, I had accessed the 1920 U. S. Census records and found my grandfather’s name. His entire family was listed: father, mother, older brother and sister, and then my grandfather, age seven. The census told me where they had been born, their occupations, and where they lived.  Finding this information was pretty exciting, and I look forward to delving deeper when I have time.

What struck me most as I read, however, was the way this document seemed to freeze time. Here, captured in this census record, my grandfather wasn’t the old man who had come to my birthday parties or taken me to visit veterans at the local V. A. hospital. Here, for all time, my grandfather is a seven-year-old boy, whose world consists of his mother, father, brother, sister and the street where he grew up. All the hopes and dreams, ups and downs, and mistakes and successes of his life are yet to be. At this moment in time, his life path remains to be decided. Here, Grandpa is not yet grandpa; he is a little boy playing with his toys, running through the warm rain on a summer day, going to school, and wondering what his future holds.

My grandfather passed away over twenty years ago, having lived a long, full life. In this document, though, he is seven forever.

I had dinner at a Chinese restaurant the other night, and I received an interesting fortune inside my after-dinner cookie. The fortune read, “The problems of today will be buried by the sands of time.” I thought this was a particularly relevant sentiment for a history and museum person to spend some time pondering.

Image of a fortune from cookie

First of all, should we comforted or frightened by this idea? What does it mean to bury? What does it mean to uncover? What happens if/when things resurface in some distance future? What will our problems mean to people who are not us? How are we (mis)interpreting what we uncover from the past?

Food for thought after a great meal.

I have been reading The Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett (1908). Near the beginning of the book, the author describes how the townspeople lived in

“An era so dark and backward that one might wonder how people could sleep in their beds at night for thinking about their sad state….They never even suspected that they were not quite modern and quite awake. They thought that the intellectual, the industrial, and the social movements had gone about as far as these movements could go, and they were amazed at their own progress….Having too little faith and too much conceit, they were content to look behind and make comparisons with the past. They did not foresee the miraculous generation which is us.”

How often do we look to the past and compare ourselves or make judgment about historical others? How often do we forget that future others likely will judge us in the same ways! Our present reality too quickly will become a past. How do we think people in the future will imagine us and interpret our beliefs and intentions? Reflections on Bennett’s (albeit tongue in cheek) words may help us to be aware of and evaluate our own tendencies toward presentism.