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Don’t Know Much About 20 Years Ago

When I was in high school, my U.S. History 2 class started with the post-Civil War Reconstruction (a repeat of the end of U.S. History 1, but the teachers didn’t trust each other to get it right) and made it through the Great Depression. We were supposed to get right on up into the Reagan years, by the curriculum (and by the AP test that I then had to cram for wildly. Luckily, there was an essay question on the Reconstruction).

But I had an idiosyncratic teacher who had us read The Wizard of Oz to understand William Jennings Bryan’s campaign against the gold standard (he swears they’re related) and yelled at us that we weren’t in the Army when we asked permission (as we were required by school rules to do) to go to the bathroom. He took his own sweet time. And all things considered, I vastly preferred that class to any full-speed-ahead, plowing-through-the-facts approach.

But the fact remains that my coverage of American history after the 1930s consisted of a rushed textbook skim; and a quick survey of my peers indicates that, aside from the few who went to college-like private schools and took whole classes on the Vietnam War, I’m not alone. Most of us never studied “recent history.”

I was made well aware of this with Reagan’s death. I remember when he was first elected—barely. Basically I remember we were at a “party” with the TV on and all the adults were depressed. I remember a grade-school mock debate four years later in which I represented Geraldine Ferraro. But for the most part I was not old enough or tuned in enough to really understand what was going on while it was happening—nor was I ever taught about in the years thereafter.

I filled in the history of what happened under his watch, mostly, as I got older and became more well-read. I got it in dribs and drabs from Audre Lorde’s essay on Grenada, from my background reading on Latin American politics before I traveled to Guatemala, from economics debates, and all sorts of other sources. I won’t say it’s complete, though it was enough that I felt able to deconstruct the hyperbolic plaudits that have come around since he died.

There’s something of a hiatus between when something is no longer in the papers and when the (thoughtful) analysis comes out. On the local level, you don’t even get the quick-as-lightning memoirs masquerading as analysis that we’re saturated with on the national politicians-as-celebrities circuit. As a result, young adults can easily end up with a historical blind spot, one that is longer or shorter (sometimes extending past what could reasonably be called young adulthood) depending on the thoroughness of our education and the time at which we start to pay attention to politics. That blind spot means that even when we do start, we lack context.

I actually started thinking about this column before Reagan died, and what was on my mind was Take City Hall!, the biography by Daniel Button of Mayor Tom Whalen, Jerry Jennings’ predecessor, which I had just finished. Whalen is known for starting with the Corning administration and the longtime machine (or “Organization” as it was called), but then taking Albany forward into pioneering territory of fiscal responsibility, open government, and accountability.

I could make a lot of complaints about the writing style of Take City Hall! (what former journalist would put so much of the important information into the footnotes?), but the fact is that such a comprehensive work on what was happening in Albany in the 1980s, and really quite a bit from before then, was incomparably helpful to a relative newcomer to town like myself. Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government report on community policing in the APD was a similar gap-bridging type of work, sadly not something that’s likely to be picked up by the average reader.

My enthusiasm for delving into this stuff is not merely an academic point about the value of completing the assigned curriculum. The people who spoke out against the deifying of Reagan, besides being understandably cranky, had one point that they brought up frequently: Yes, it does matter how we remember him, because the effects of his policies are still with us and made where we are now possible in a myriad of different ways. If we don’t understand how we got here, it’s a lot harder to figure out how to move on. I am far, far, far from being an expert on any of these issues, but I at least aim to get enough groundwork to know what questions to ask of whom.

Ditto on the local level. Knowing the fights that surrounded ending Albany’s long and ugly history of no-bid contracts gives a significantly different spin on whether we should be worried about expenditures from an unsupervised police account that gives business to the companies of its moonlighting officers. Knowing how weak the Common Council used to be gives us a significant understanding of how far they’ve come, and why the position of liaison to the mayor (president pro tempore) was/is such a powerful one. Knowing about the long-standing debate over the centrality of job procurement to the Democratic Party’s mission provides a connecting theme between the recent fight between Jennings and departing Superintendent Michael Johnson over work permits for failing students and the absentee-ballot scandal that involved public housing residents often reliant on those summer jobs.

Context is key, and not just for policy wonks and newshounds. As one 20-year-old recently told me, not having context is one big reason that many young adults are politically apathetic—it’s hard to grasp why things matter. If we’re worried about youth voter participation, maybe it’s worth paying a little more attention to how to navigate the murky waters between current events and history, even if the gold standard gets short shrift now and then.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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