Applied history

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(Host) Vermont’s history always tells us something about today. Commentator Tom Slayton has been talking with Vermont Historical Society Director Kevin Graffagnino about how the lessons Vermont’s past might teach today’s policy-makers:

(Slayton) Kevin Graffagnino, who has been director of the Vermont Historical Society for almost a year now, says he would like to see the past become a part of today’s policy-making.

Graffagnino calls this idea “applied history,” and he hopes it will help both the Historical Society — and Vermont as a whole.

What it amounts to is a significant broadening of the society’s mission. “Simply stated,” Graffagnino said recently, “It means the Historical Society will look for ways to supply historical information and perspective on many of today’s public concerns, challenges, and debates as a way of helping Vermonters make better-informed choices and decisions.”

The historical society will remain an objective source of information, and won’t take sides on any issue Graffagnino said. But, it will actively seek a place at the discussion table.

What sort of issues will the Historical Society seek to offer help with?

Many current state policy issues have a deep historical background. For example, Vermont children have had a right to a public education in Vermont since the state’s first constitution was written in 1777. Yet actually providing that Constitutional guarantee — coming up with the money to run schools and pay teachers — has been a problem for more than two centuries. Vermont does not have a lot of native wealth, and it varies from town to town — and consequently there has been a lot of puzzling over education funding from the earliest days right down to the present controversies over Act 60 and school choice.

Likewise contemporary issues over environmental regulation and the Champion lands debate in the Northeast Kingdom are part of a 200-year continuum of contending Vermont attitudes and beliefs regarding land, natural resources, conservation and property rights.

The Civil Unions/ Gay Marriage controversy is as current as the latest bumper stickers, and also part of a long Vermont discussion about civil rights — and another about the traditions associated with marriage.

Those are exactly the kinds of issues, according to Kevin Graffagnino where history may have some relevance for today.

There are obvious benefits for the state in having a historical context in which to weigh issues. The benefit for the Vermont Historical Society is that offering its historical expertise brings history off the bookshelf, into the world of contemporary ideas and gives the Society new partners and a broader misson.

“I’m one of the most committed history nuts on the planet,” Graffagnino said recently. “But frankly, there just aren’t enough of us.”

His obvious hope is that taking the historical approach to problem solving will make more Vermonters more history -conscious – and therefore wiser about the problems that Vermont faces today.

Tom Slayton is editor of Vermont Life magazine.

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