Jacksonville’s people have lately been discussing changing the names of some of their most venerable public schools. This is hardly a new conversation, but in 2021 it is as lively as ever it has been. When history is in the news, that is generally good. In the present moment, it is a chance to remind ourselves of the meaning of the word “history.” Regular readers of this newsletter may recognize the message.
In debates such this, we hear the word “history” being often misused. Some observers lament that our history is being “destroyed” or “taken away.” “You can’t change history” is another common phrase of objection. In fact, history changes continuously. That is because history is not what happened. The events of the past are what happened. History is how we understand and explain those events. Put differently, history is how we humans interpret and make sense of our forebears, legacies and inheritances.
For example, in 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. That is a fact about something that happened in the past. But during the fifty-eight years since, the meaning and consequences of that event have shifted. Had Kennedy lived to win and serve a second term, could there ever have been a Civil Rights Act? Would some 58,000 U.S. servicemen and women have died in Vietnam, along with more than a million Vietnamese? Questions such as those make President Kennedy’s fate a major fork in the road of historical understanding.
As we relate and connect the events of the past, we constantly reframe their meaning, and explain them in more nuanced and complex ways. That’s what makes the discipline of history so interesting – it never stops unfolding.
When trying to imagine the future, we often look to the past for evidence in support of our ideas, and the temptation can be strong to manipulate history in the service of contemporary argument. Sometimes it seems that the more one learns about the past, the less clear its lessons. Nevertheless, as we strive to interpret the past, we should represent it as fully and fairly as possible, while acknowledging that our historical knowledge is constantly being revised by new research, and our historical comprehension is revised by new experiences.
History is sometimes a set of conflicting arguments, and we should embrace robust historical argument. The freedom to investigate, analyze, and challenge what we know about our national past defines us as Americans – it is every citizen’s right and responsibility. But, as with any argument, we do better when we strive for accuracy and fairness, and when we listen to and grapple with the arguments of those who disagree with us. Put differently, we argue more effectively when others sense that they are being heard, and their point understood, even though disagreement remains.
By hosting and promoting public discussion of renaming schools, Duval County Public Schools is offering citizens a setting where their ideas and voices can be heard. The position of the Jacksonville Historical Society now is to encourage and respect the process that the DCPS have established to hear from their constituents. We hope that a grass-roots consensus emerges to help inform the District’s action.
Alan J. Bliss, Ph.D., CEO, Jacksonville Historical Society
Note: This article was shared in the March 2021 issue of “Jacksonville History Matters,” the monthly digital newsletter of the Jacksonville Historical Society. To be added to the distribution list, please click here.