Community can celebrate ‘Heritage Heroes’ while history is under attack

Posted 14 January 2014 at 12:00 am


These are dark times for the historian. All around us history is under attack. We are stripping it from the curriculum in the public schools, or making it subordinate to other disciplines. In the colleges, history classes are being stripped from program requirements left and right. In fact, where once a student would have to take two or three history classes for a four-year degree from a SUNY school, now a student can graduate without any history at all.

Outside the academy, history is doing little better. Recent surveys of historical knowledge in the general public are truly disturbing. Historic buildings are being pulled down faster than ever. Small historical societies are being forced to close down and the artifacts sold or distributed to other organizations. History, it seems, does not matter in modern society.

In the GLOW region, however, there are gleams of light to gladden the heart of the historian. These counties are exceptions to the bleak national picture, perhaps Orleans County most of all. Here, it seems, the people are aware of the darkness elsewhere and are determined to preserve their heritage and take stock of the history of the area.

Energetic organizations like the Sandstone Society, the Orleans Renaissance Group, the Cobblestone Society and local historical societies are bucking the national trend. Orleans County is also fortunate to have Bill Lattin, their tireless county historian leading the way.

Driving these organizations is a cadre of folks who are determined to transmit their heritage to the succeeding generations. When you survey the membership of these organizations, you cannot but notice that they are made up of many of the same people. But there are also numerous stories of individual citizens of Orleans County acting on their own to save a building, maintain a cemetery, or commemorate the past in their own way. In some cases this means a considerable financial investment.

In recognition of the unique atmosphere and the dedicated people of Orleans County, Genesee Community College and Tom Rivers, editor of the Orleans Hub news site, have teamed up to create annual awards to celebrate the individuals who work so hard to preserve the history of the area.

The Orleans County Heritage Heroes program will kick-off by soliciting nominations for the first round of awards through Jan. 31. The awards will be presented in a ceremony at the annual GCC Civil War Encampment in Medina, April 26-27, 2014.

By devaluing history, American society is really cutting off its nose to spite its face. History provides the context with which to understand the world. We are now raising generations of young people without that context. By subordinating history to lesser status than other disciplines, or eliminating it entirely, we are placing our young people at a significant disadvantage.

Think about a person with amnesia, for example. Without the memory, the world does not make sense. You do not recognize friends and, worse, you do not know who your enemies might be. You are left to the mercy of others who might be willing to provide the missing information, but that information will be shaped by the perceptions and perhaps the agenda of those providing it.

Of course, in my opinion, everyone who attends college should be required to complete – at bare minimum – both an American history and a World history course. It is not enough in today’s world to know the history of your own country. With modern communications technologies, it is extremely important to know how the world came to be as it is and to have a baseline understanding of culture.  Moreover, while there is an emphasis on math and science to compete in the world, those too have historical context. In fact, there is no professional discipline, no academic major and no occupation that ought to be without grounding in history! NONE!

We can certainly celebrate the fact that people in Western New York, especially Orleans County, value their history and seek to maintain their heritage. These wonderful folks are examples that the country, as a whole, should recognize and emulate! The Orleans County Heritage Heroes Awards are just one way we can say “thank you” to the treasured few swimming against the current. Now we need to work on changing the direction of the current.

Derek Maxfield
Assistant Professor of History at Genesee Community College