Voice Magazine / Stories / 2016 Fall / Speaking of the Past
Al Clark

Speaking of the Past

The study of history can be fun or boring, a delight of understanding or a sad list of names and dates, but it is always significant.

The study of history can be fun or boring, a delight of understanding or a sad list of names and dates, but it is always significant.

“What’s past is prologue,” Shakespeare wrote, an adage proclaimed in stone on the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C.

“Those who cannot remember the past,” George Santayana declared, “are condemned to repeat it.”

One of the most exciting adventures in history-telling today is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s award-winning Broadway musical, “Hamilton.” This rap drama reminds viewers history is based on people’s stories that should be told, analyzed and presented.

America’s founders in Miranda’s creative retelling of the Revolution and its aftermath are obsessed with their own stories and how they will be remembered. The show ends with the entire company singing “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?”

The reason I like oral history so much is because it allows people to tell their own stories-“the good people” whom our nation’s founders evoked in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

The answer to George Washington’s question asked in Miranda’s compelling words is that we all should get to tell our own stories. That is what oral history is all about.

“The Oral History of the University of La Verne,” a segment of which Bryan Best’s and my Honors Colloquium class presents each Monday night during the university’s 125th academic year, is rooted in the oral histories of more than 200 people recorded over the last three years.

“All politics is local,” House Speaker Eugene “Tip” O’Neill emphasized, but “all history is local, too,” and these oral histories and the university’s oral history which will be woven from them will become a small, but significant part of our nation’s historical archives.

History is always the story of people. The challenge is to take the stories of individuals and meld a meaningful story of a People.

The Honors class will be hard pressed merely to weld them into the story of an institution. Come see it!

Historians depend upon primary sources-documents, memoirs, and other words and artifacts by people who actually participated in the events being told. My teaching has always focused on these primary sources, and my class this fall will be no exception.

My own writing is grounded in primary sources too, including my current manuscript, “The San Gabriel Watershed and Climate Change, 1542-2042.” It also draws upon oral histories.

Of course, both my research and that of the Honors Colloquium depend upon much more than oral history. Nevertheless, the more available, the richer the story fabric will become.

Why not schedule your own oral history interview?  Contact me at aclark@laverne.edu or 909-448-4161.