The Value of History
by H. K. Lindsley
February 1935 (Vol. 4, No. 1), pages 50 to 53
Transcribed by Susan Stafford; digitized with permission of
the Kansas Historical Society.
Address of the president at the annual meeting of the Kansas Historical Society, Topeka, October 16, 1934
A BUSINESS man who has no claim to the title of historian except by virtue of the honorary office of the president is placed in a position of some embarrassment when he speaks before this Society. If my observations are not made from the viewpoint of the professional historian, precedent can be found in the addresses of other presidents; and if I do not speak authoritatively of the early history of Kansas, as they did, it is because I am young, and we are all young, compared with the life of the state. The time is past when a president of this Society can appear before you with reminiscences which at the same time will be a history of our beginnings.
Yet this is a custom which should not be put aside. We are making history to-day at a speed that was not exceeded during the years when our territory was "Bleeding Kansas," and the Civil War was having its preview within our borders. The social consequences of the changes we are witnessing may be as far-reaching in their effect on the future of the country as were the results of the fight to abolish slavery. Whether these consequences will be for good or evil is for the future to disclose, and for the historian to record. The point I wish to emphasize is that our history is in the making; it is not a dead thing to be pulled out and praised or deplored; and our Historical Society, therefore, is not merely a custodian of the past, but is the recorder of the present, and so is as vital and essential to Kansas as any department of the state.
In seeking a definition of history for these very brief remarks I discovered that historians have as many interpretations of the word as politicians have explanations for the New Deal. As a matter of fact we are all historians. When a mother teaches a child to talk she is teaching history. Every grade in school is a step upward in a knowledge of history. If we could collect a group of the children of our most highly educated parents before they had learned to walk, and could segregate them where they would never be taught anything, where they would never even see another human being, they would never talk. Their descendants for years would never talk. It would be centuries before they would wear
LINDSLEY: THE VALUE OF HISTORY 51
clothing, make fires and cook food, learn to chip flints, make bows and arrows. It would be centuries more before they would learn to work metals, would stumble on the principle of the wheel, discover the use of the level, understand the planting and cultivation of crops. In time they would arrive where civilization is to-day -- and perhaps some of them would regret it. But each generation is saved from this return to savagery by one thing, and that is history -- which, written or unwritten, is in its true sense the record of the combined knowledge of mankind.
In our complicated civilization there are many kinds of history. Every textbook, every laboratory record, every medical journal, every agricultural report is a history which conceivably could save some record of progress from oblivion. I am in the insurance business, which as businesses go is relatively in its infancy. Yet there is a vast history of the insurance business; not a written history in the sense that you could get it and read it; but a record of the trials and errors by which some modern insurance companies have grown and progressed, and by which they avoid the pitfalls of the past and build for the future. The first insurors were gamblers and they necessarily asked high odds because they were taking long chances. To-day they read history in the form of mortality tables and other actuarial data, and their policies have ceased to be lottery tickets. The business has become a science, and all science, it is obvious, has its foundation in the records of the past, in history.
It may be said that what I have described is not history, but the source material from which history is written. Perhaps that is true from the viewpoint of the writer of history. But in a broader sense these records of businesses, industries and crafts are in themselves histories because trained experts can read and act upon them as they exist without further organization. Written history, no matter how orthodox in treatment and limited in scope, is after all dependent upon a more or less uninitiated public. But it seems to me that any collection of records upon which men or businesses base the conduct of their affairs may rightly be called history. And if that is true, therefore, our whole civilization is dependent upon the preservation and accessibility of history; and the proper care of historical records, whether in a laboratory of chemical research or in a historical society, is of immediate concern to everybody.
Now we all know, of course, that very few persons are concerned with the preservation of history. For that reason it is our duty as
52 THE KANSAS HISTORICAL QUARTERLY
members of the State Historical Society to support it and argue for its importance. When I was in the legislature a fellow member once asked, "What the hell is the Historical Society? What good is it anyway?" I have too much respect for this man to believe he meant that question literally, any more than I believe Henry Ford seriously made the statement that history is bunk. Mr. Ford has since spent many thousands of dollars on his historical museum and I have no doubt that the member of the legislature appreciates the value of the kind of history which he unconsciously uses every day in his private and business affairs. These statements nevertheless reveal an all too common type of mind which regards the collection and writing of history as a sort of academic exercise with no practical relation to the problems of life. We do not hear similar remarks about the tax department -- no matter how we may feel about taxes personally -- and I question if they are even made about the insurance commission. But because the Historical Society is a little less directly connected with our pocketbooks some of us fail to comprehend that it is already one of the most valuable assets the state possesses and will increase with value every decade.
It has been said that a people which does not respect its history will have no future worthy of respect. If this is true, and I think you will agree that it is profoundly true, we need have no concern about the future of Kansas, for Kansas has always cherished her past. The Memorial building and the State Historical Society are a monument to the men and women who built the state. This Society is among the largest in the country, although one of the youngest. For this we must thank the men who directed it and supported it through even leaner years than those we have been experiencing. To them it was a living organization, not founded for the past alone, and they honored themselves and the state in this belief and in their labors.
Public appropriations for historical societies have been reduced everywhere. This condition is offset to a considerable extent by the vigor and cheerfulness with which historical society staffs have carried on their work. Though even in days of prosperity they had to exercise rigid economy, they have recognized the special need for government economy during hard times, and they have done their utmost with reduced budgets. They do not suppose that historical agencies should or could be exempt from reductions in a period of prolonged depression. It is clearly within the province of the members of this Society, however, to do all in their power to impress upon
LINDSLEY: THE VALUE OF HISTORY 53
the public the value of this institution and its work; to promote wider understanding of the necessity of adequate support; to call upon their friends for defense; to consider how they can most effectively present their needs to legislators; to harbor no defeatist attitude. Let us bear in mind that popular interest in history is on the increase and the value of the work of historical societies is gaining a wider public understanding than it has ever had before. Our staff is carrying on its routine work -- collecting, arranging, cataloging, editing and publishing, serving users of historical materials, and reaching the public in scores of ways. They are making slender resources go a long way toward serving the need of the state in a critical period of history. They need and deserve all the support we can give them.