“What history does to you is its use” (Nibley Fellow Reflections)

10.13.2017 | The Maxwell Institute

Katherine Kitterman received a Nibley Fellowship during the 2016–17 school year. Kitterman is currently a PhD candidate in American History at American University in Washington, D. C. Her fields of emphasis are public history and women’s history. As the Maxwell Institute redirects our Nibley Fellowship funding away from individual stipends into a full post-doctoral fellowship, we’re looking back at some of the recent Nibley Fellow recipients in recognition of their good work. Read other past Nibley Fellow Reflections here.
Years ago, a family from India approached my seat behind the information desk of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D. C. As the son dropped a few dollar bills into the donation box, his parents complimented the exhibit they had just visited. “Thank you for telling this story,” they whispered through their tears. That encounter has come to mind often during my graduate study; I remember well the rush of my own tears and the powerful connection I felt with these three strangers as we grieved together for people we did not know. The memory reminds me that history binds us together by making the threads of our common humanity visible. It reminds me that when we open our hearts to others’ experiences, we make room for God’s love. In my mind, this connective potential must be one of the reasons behind the scriptural command to early Latter-day Saints to “obtain a knowledge of history, and of countries, and of kingdoms, of laws of God and man, and all this for the salvation of Zion” (D&C 93:15). Obtaining this kind of knowledge gives disciples skills to do the Lord’s work more effectively, but I don’t believe the end goal is to make better leaders or managers or even better communicators. Learning about other people’s experiences is not just a nice supplement to our spiritual endeavors. Instead, if we do it right, the process and practice of history can change us in ways that make us better disciples of Christ. How does this work? Freeman Tilden, the father of historical interpretation in the U.S. National Park Service, wrote that “the use of history is not external but internal…What history does to you, is its use.” Thinking about history means thinking your way into the past and into other people’s shoes. It’s following along with them as they make difficult choices and appreciating their successes. It’s mourning with those who mourn. Thinking historically cultivates empathy and compassion by softening our hearts and attuning them to others’ experiences. Thinking historically also shapes the way we learn. Engaging with history means active listening—it requires asking questions and evaluating what sources can say to us, rather than simply talking at them. Seeking learning in this way cultivates a sort of intellectual humility as we allow other people’s words and lives to change our own views of the world. These intellectual habits of mind certainly lie at the heart of a Zion society. I’m thankful for the Maxwell Institute’s generous donors who have supported my graduate training and my research on nineteenth-century Mormon women’s political activism for suffrage. I’m exploring how these women appropriated the language of citizenship by employing the political forms of expression available to them—petitions, indignation meetings, convention speeches, and for several years, voting in territorial elections. Their story raises (and helps to answer) questions about American women’s history, but it has a more personal power as well. I’m convinced that listening to these women’s words speaking on their own behalf and understanding the dilemmas they faced in navigating their particular opportunities and constraints can help us more fully appreciate the nuance and complexity of their choices. I hope it makes us slower to pass judgement and quicker to see the common humanity in our own world as well as theirs. In a world where mutual respect and understanding are sorely lacking, I’ve been heartened to see museum visitors and history students putting aside their differences to think from a new perspective and consider together the meaning of past people and events. I have hope that historical engagement can forge cultural connections through empathy and conversation.