Among the colloquial expressions that I remember from my background is a response to some assertion of an idea or opinion – “I reckon.”
Most of the time, as I recall, its meaning was something along the line of “I agree,” perhaps with a bit more nuance: “I hear what you are saying, and I can see how it could well be true.”
“Reckon” was a kind of one-word assessment of the value, or at least a value to be considered further, of an idea or concept – somewhere between an “Amen” of full agreement and a “Well, I don’t know” of skepticism.
More broadly, a “reckoning” was a kind of “accounting” that evaluated or judged something or someone in terms of assets and liabilities in some aspect of life. A “day of reckoning” was a time of being “weighed in the balances” and evaluated with clarity.
Our current culture war skirmish over the reading and teaching of history has brought “reckoning” to the surface and prompted some reflection on how we “reckon” with history in a responsible way as we continue to move along its path.
Most should be familiar with the efforts to minimize the impact of, or even eliminate, features of our history that shine light on less favorable perspectives and systems that tarnish the kind of ideal image we might desire to maintain.
This has, inadvertently and perhaps ironically, prompted healthy reflection amid the foolishness of those who are weaponizing the issue.
Every society, I suppose, has both high and low moments – those times and people who have upheld the highest of ideals, and those who have demonstrated a shameful betrayal of them.
We are coming to realize that we all participate in both the complicity and the challenge to those features of our history that are the landmarks of our collective journey.
Versions of the familiar saying, “Those who do not know history are destined to repeat it,” are variously attributed to Edmund Burke (in the wake of the French and American revolutions), George Santayana (at the turn of the 20th century) and Winston Churchill (just after the end of World War II).
Each in his own time of major cultural transition was underscoring the importance of a comprehensive understanding of the forces at work in the progression of history.
The desire to draft and maintain a historical narrative that presents one’s own heritage in the best possible light is understandable, and we are now coming to see how that narrative can present an image skewed to favor a culture’s dominant perspectives.
The bright light of such a positive narrative can easily obscure features that are the dark underbelly of perceived greatness, as we are now coming to realize in the reminders of our racial history and our treatment of Native Americans.
What is becoming clear to me in the current history-teaching skirmish of the populist culture war is that we need not only a knowledge of history but also a “reckoning” with history.
Reckoning means coming to terms with history – all of it, unvarnished – and reflecting carefully on what lessons can be gleaned from it. One generation cannot do it for generations to follow, as though the job is “done” – this “reckoning” must be done in every generation.
We cannot say, as I hear frequently, that now we have dismantled many of the overt structures of discrimination and are “over it” and need to “move on.”
The realities of our history do not give us the luxury of picking and choosing the parts by which we will define ourselves, but they do give each generation the choice either to ignore or to “reckon with” them.
We may well be seeing the effects of a period of “non-reckoning” with our history in the widespread appeal of ideologies and conspiracy theories that are focused on agendas of power and control. The parallels between the dynamics of our time and historical settings that didn’t turn out well are easy to see.
I frequently acknowledge my indebtedness to historian colleagues who helped me understand the difference between “knowing history” and “thinking historically.” The importance of the first is obvious, but so is the second, as an ongoing reckoning with what can be learned and woven into a wisdom for moving forward.
To “protect” a generation from the discomfort of knowing about those things of our past that do not reflect well on us collectively is to deprive that generation of the tools to do their generation’s reckoning.
Reckoning with history is more a long-term educational process than short-term political posturing. It’s always easier, it seems, to “assert” than to “reckon.”
Yet, we can look around and see the high price we pay in our national character for avoiding that discomfort.
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).