Don McNeil. The Why of Local History.
The Wisconsin Magazine of History, Vol. 38, No. 4 (Summer, 1955), pp. 245-247.
The earliest reading in the list asks straight up about the value in local history. McNeil warns of the problem in local history, where a host of different projects become ends in themselves rather than a broad program in influencing the public mind. For McNeil, that influence is the encouragement to mine below the surface layers of human experience. This mining expedition includes an understanding of economic problems – and hence, economic value, the concept of citizenship, and the political system at hand. McNeil states,
In the study of local institutions and local politics the stage is small enough, the players close enough, to analyse the problems facing all our people – and at first hand. While a person may not know the intricacies surrounding the appointment, policies, and objectives of, let’s say, the Atomic Energy Commission, he may well understand the forces working in his own community which make for political success, for a change in laws, or for a better administration of justice. Personal experience, buttressed by a study of the history and background of the political problems, add up to a sensible approach to that often bewildering world of government. The person who takes the long view, the one who gains insight from the mistakes and successes of the past, will surely become the good citizen.
Reading McNeil, one must take into account the individualistic and gender bias of the 1950s, and the way the analysis might be distorted or limited, but his conclusion does not suffer in those shortcomings, and he argues that local history can provide an ethical pathway for “better citizens, better workers, and finally, better people”.
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