Tangible and Intangible Uses of Historical Knowledge

Lou Henry Hoover sitting at the “Monroe Desk” which was reproduced for the White House collection. ca 1931

By Thomas F. Schwartz

Another of Lou Henry Hoover’s undeveloped musings addresses the problem of people who only mine the past for practical applications in the present.  A deeper understanding of the context that gave rise to the knowledge and its broader implications seems unimportant to a majority of people. In an undated fragment, Lou writes:

“In the tangible things, that are practical, generation after generation unquestioningly accepts the progress of those past.  They come with outstretched hands for the story of the laboratory experiments that make possible the stamping out of yellow fever; or the manipulation of a great lens to bring the outskirts of the universe nearer; or those innumerable laboratory experiments with iron and steel and concrete necessary before the first modern bridges or great building was attempted.

And yet, there are many today who would accept and utilize the discoveries of Robert Milliken (sic) and (Albert Einstein, Marie Curie), who not understanding themselves the intricacies of the problems of human relation, want to ignore all the experience and experiments of the last hundreds of years, and go back to the crude thought and practices of the time of Elizabeth, or Peter the Great. (Quite overlooking the fact that there was one a thousand years before them who had more clearly elucidated their problems.)”

Lou’s selection of Millikan, Einstein, and Curie are not random.  Marie Curie’s isolating radioactive isotopes and Millikan and Einstein’s work in proving light is not a wave but a particle contributed greatly to modern science.  Millikan, Einstein, and Curie also served on the League of Nations’ Committee on Intellectual Cooperation. Advances in knowledge too often are taken for granted and seen as the unfolding of “progress.”  But progress is not always forward moving or uplifting. Knowledge stripped of its historical context can be used for practical purposes. It is context, however, that provides information and empathy with the past. Context provides intangible historical knowledge such as human motivation, cultural and environmental influences, etc.  that enriches the senses and provides a connective thread through time and space. History neither repeats itself or rhymes, but provides understanding of why something occurred at a certain time and place. History is something to be studied, not forgotten.

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