Looking to history for the future

After finishing a B.A. in history last year, I made the terrible life choice of staying at McGill for graduate school. Tuition hikes and dismal job prospects for prospective historians give me plenty reason to regret my decision for years to come, and the continual weaponization of academic history—be it in the service of whitewashed musicals or of reactionary politics—only adds to my doubts. Despite the pretensions associated with this field, I still find hope that history can help agitate for positive changes in the world. Writing in the months prior to his flight from the Wehrmacht in 1940, German Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin explained that invoking the past means seizing the ephemeral memory of history as it is needed in times of danger. 

With socioeconomic inequities only worsening throughout the pandemic and the far-right mobilizing throughout North America, the present moment certainly appears to be a dangerous one. To use Benjamin’s reasoning, searching for guidance in history entails sparking contemporary hope in the ambitions of past struggles to imagine a better future. Many historians, professional or otherwise, have attempted to do just this. To find solutions to the chronic health issues that plague many Southern communities, Michael Twitty uses his work on the history of African American foodways to revive interest in sustainable agricultural practices. Robert Lee and Tristan Ahtone dug through millions of records to accurately illustrate how the modern American university system developed, and continues to profit from, speculation on stolen Indigenous lands. There are too many other examples to give. Studying the past in each of these cases is not a matter of simply collecting trivia facts for the sake of nostalgia, but rather a reflection upon the historical struggles that continue to persist in the present day.

As McGill enters its bicentennial year, it has the power to reflect on its own blemished history in a similarly meaningful way. The university could interrogate its links to transatlantic slavery, tear down the statue memorializing James McGill, repatriate stolen artifacts housed in the Redpath Museum, and bring about meaningful action on its own prior commitments to truth and reconciliation. But even if the bicentennial commemorations turn into little more than a fundraising gimmick, history will always be a contested field. McGill students have found ways to cut through the obtuseness of the university’s PR stunts in creative ways before. This coming year should not be any different.

Indeed, the past summer shows that grassroots movements can take the interpretation of history into their own hands. While governments and public institutions continually failed to address their roles in historical oppression—and the contemporary memorialization of those wrongdoings—activists took it upon themselves to topple and provide context to racist commemorations. The decapitated, spray-painted statue of Sir John A. Macdonald on the streets of downtown Montreal is as much a history lesson as any plaque or government platitude. 

Looking back to Benjamin’s thesis, it is also prudent to think of the future-oriented nature of historical thinking. By taking control of historical “memories,” we can then examine and interrogate them to advocate for positive change in the world. As many of us think critically about McGill’s bicentennial in the coming months, let this also be a time where we can imagine a future beyond the constraints of academic bureaucracy—a future in which we can work towards a truly inclusive and equitable society. Regardless of what shape it takes, the fact remains that a better world is possible. 

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