Living through history: a historical perspective

Living through history: a historical perspective
Updated: Apr. 25, 2020 at 3:28 PM CDT
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ST. PETER, Minn. (KEYC) - Without a doubt, we are living through one of the 21st century’s greatest historical events, full of uncertainty, fear and unabashed strangeness.

But like other major events in history, how will our children judge us and compare the ongoing pandemic to other crises?

“I think it’s going to be studied comparatively, and inevitably there will be comparisons to World War II - there are already have been - and to 9/11. A context that is going to at least interest U.S. historians in particular, but also other historians - the Great Depression was global afterall - is the 1930s in addition to earlier pandemics, 1918 of course,” says Gustavus Adolphus College history professor Greg Kastor.

History shows us that many of these events, had an endgame, but before it could be jotted down in the textbooks, those of the past had to endure hardship.

“One of the things that I’ve been thinking about in terms of comparing this time period to the past, especially the world wars in Europe, is two things. One is how people in the past never expected their lives to change dramatically or to be any different and I think we can all relate to that,” says Gustavus Adolphus College history chair Kathleen Keller.

Traditionally, historians looked to newspapers, journals and other accounts to gain a context of the time period, but we live in a digital world where much of what we do is documented online and on social media.

The digital age may better assist future historians in creating a better-detailed account of the present.

“We still have newspapers even if they’re online. We still have newspapers and we still have government reports and all of those things that will be essential and studied by historians. Nonetheless, yes it’s a different world for historians even before the pandemic. So many of our sources are now digital,” says Kastor.

“I think historians of the future will be looking at Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and TikTok, SnapChat or whatever they can get there hands on to get sources. They’ll certainly have an abundance of those," says Keller.

Part of being a historian is comparing historical events to the present. But what are their observations of what’s occurring now in a time of unprecedented change?

“It’s hard as a historian to judge your own time because your job is to look to the past, so in some ways I’m leaving judgment of this time to the future historians. History is still there for me to give me a sense of a story that’s a little bit different that’ll kind of take me away from present times,” says Keller.

“History is both sobering I would say, and a source of hope. But History is really about change and continuity over time. I personally take great solace in that. Knowing that people went through something similar or even worse in the past and here we are,” says Kastor.

One thing we can ask ourselves is this: does history really repeat itself? Future textbooks may hold the answer to that question.

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