In my butterfly days, I said exactly what I was thinking at the very instant that I thought it. This custom gave me a great deal of pleasure, as well as a great deal of practice in cleaning up the wreckage that the pleasure left in its wake.
Consider the price I paid for a remark in the early years of the Center of the American West. Addressing a gathering of faculty from many departments, I felt suddenly moved to declare that history was “the queen of the disciplines.”
And with that remark, I had assigned myself the task of assuring professors from other disciplines that I knew that I could only understand the American West if I had their help.
When I finally conceded that there was wisdom in the practice of thinking before you speak, the benefits proved unending. But I am only now noticing the injury I did to history by characterizing it as the “queen” of human inquiries.
Queens, to use the terminology of our times, do not qualify as “essential workers.”
Here is a far better characterization: history is the Marie Kondo of the disciplines.
Marie Kondo, everyone knows, is the professional organizer who helps people who are trapped by their possessions to reduce the clutter of their households.
If trained and prepared for this rough sport, historians emerge as the essential workers who help people, who are trapped by their traditions and assumptions, to reduce the clutter of their minds.
With all due respect to Marie Kondo, persuading people to evaluate their mental furnishings is a lot harder than getting them to surrender clothing they will never wear and gadgets and gizmos they have never understood.
And now for the point: our nation has before it an enormous project in a Marie-Kondo-style decluttering of our minds and our institutions. In a thousand ways, we are asking, “Who shall we be and how shall we live in the post-pandemic era?”
There are compelling reasons for historians to play a leading role in figuring out which habits of mind we should keep, which we should discard, and which we should modify for our new circumstances.
So let’s take a practice run on a widely embraced habit of mind: the disconnect between production and consumption.
With the construction of a vast infrastructure for the extracting and transporting of water, food, timber, and minerals, Americans separated the production of resources, commodities, and services from their consumption. This undertaking was so successful that its beneficiaries could complacently take it for granted.
But that’s over.
Thinking historically, we can know why this disconnect came into being; we can know why it once governed our thinking; and we can know why that era has passed.
And so, when the disconnect between production and consumption tries to sneak back into our minds, we can be firm in making it clear that it is now unemployed, and it is not going to get rehired.
Ready to try this yourself?
Recruit a historian, watch a video or two of Marie Kondo in action, pick a habit of mind, and decide whether to keep it.
And then speak with forethought when you announce your decision; there’s already enough wreckage around to keep us busy cleaning up.
Patty Limerick is chair of the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado.
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