Old silver Elgin wristwatch, 2018.
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History Is Like Air

A major, current conversation within the history community is how to show people the relevance of history to their lives. There’s even a History Relevance campaign with an associated website.

It is my belief that people don’t recognize history’s relevance because history is too much like air. It surrounds us and is embedded in our lives so deeply that we simply don’t notice it.

History is the succession of events on earth. (Well, the succession of events in the entire universe, too, but most of us have no idea what is happening in other arms of the Milky Way, let alone in some distant unnamed galaxy.)

While most people, if pressed, will define history as something that happened at least 100 years ago or more, that’s not how historians see history. Events from one minute ago are history. One second ago, even.

Your last breath (but hopefully not your last last breath or you wouldn’t be reading this) is history. So is your last thought.

History is standing behind us, breathing down our necks. (How’s that for your creepy thought of the day?)

When historians think about collecting and preserving history, we are concerned with the entire sweep of history, from the past beyond human memory up until the moment just passed. (Historians have a term for collecting items from more recent history. We call it contemporary collecting.)

It is this giant, interlocking sweep of events, one thing following another following another, that provides context and continuity for all of history.

Lest you think history is limited to human activities and events – nope! Rocks have a history; other organisms have a history; inanimate objects have a history. Even ideas can have a history.

There is no escaping history because it is all around us. Many of us are using it subconsciously. Like the Buddha, we need only to become awake to history to see it. Once we recognize it, we’ll see it everywhere.

To that end, I’ll be presenting a regular series on The Pragmatic Historian. Called “Using History,” each post in the series will feature a few online articles and resources that show how history is being used.

If you find examples of the uses of history, feel free to share in the comments.

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