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Dr. Howard Winn, Professor Emeritus and Luncheon Speaker Sixth Annual Clarksville Writers’ Conference

Professor Dewey Browder introducing Dr. Howard Winn

Professor Dewey Browder introducing Dr. Howard Winn

Introduced by Dewey Browder, Professor and Chair of the Department of History and Philosophy, Howard Winn. Professor Emeritus of history at Austin Peay State University and co-author of A History of Austin Peay State University, 1806-2001 and Clarksville Tennessee in the Civil War: A Chronology, advised participants of the Sixth Annual Clarksville Writers’ Conference to use but not abuse history.

Howard gave examples of the abuse of history through a newspaper ad that took a quotation from Thomas Jefferson totally out of context. The full page ad’s implication that George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were supporting the idea of “In God We Trust” or the United States as a Christian nation was totally without merit, according to Dr. Winn’s view. He went on to explain that “each of these men was an 18th Century revolutionary who sought to demolish the ancient tie between church and state that had impeded both the growth of liberty and non-established churches (Catholic, Anglican, Congregational).

Howard Winn addressing the attendees at the 2010 Writer's Conference Friday Luncheon

Howard Winn addressing the attendees at the 2010 Writer's Conference Friday Luncheon

Dr. Winn went on to state that the quotation from Jefferson’s writings referred not at all to religion but to the subject of slavery in Virginia and was taken from his Notes on the State of Virginia. The quotation was “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.”

Howard then quoted from Dame Veronica Wedgwood, the female English historian (1910-1997) who wrote, “Cherish history for its delightful undermining of certainty.” He added a quotation from Paul Gagnon, a historian who wrote in 1888 in “Why Study History” that history provides the judgment and, from that, wisdom “to question stereotypes to discern the differences between fact and opinion, to grasp the complexity of historical cause; and equips one with the deep discriminating historical knowledge required to ward off panic, self pity and resignation…”

Dr Howard Winn

Dr Howard Winn

Bemoaning the fact that present-day politicians seem to feel no compunction to quote people in context of the original statement, Dr. Winn said, “Any public figure is subject to their public utterances intentionally or accidentally being misconstrued, taken out of context by any and all—except a historian. The words of historical figures uttered or written at a particular time are often used to support or condemn a point of view in contemporary time.” Historians are admonished to not tell lies about the dead, but politicians, pundits, talking heads and other commentators do not have that obligation, although they should.

Howard pointed out that “writing history in not ‘gotcha politics.’ Nor is it partisanship seeking to debase the character or position of an opponent. It is an attempt to explain or interpret a historical moment based on solid evidence, not opinion.”

Dr. Winn said, “We live today in what can be called a ‘five-alarm political culture’—every little flare up is elevated to a boiling controversy. Every departure from some sacred codex is an act of treachery. As a Great Recession does not end in the allotted thirty-minute mindset, bear in mind that the Great Depression ended over many years with numerous downturns before total revival brought about in part preparation for the World War II.”

“Actual history is slower, more tedious and certainly less uplifting,” Howard reminded everyone.

He concluded with an observation by historian Carl Becker that “history enables us to control, not society, but ourselves—a much more important thing. It prepares us to live more humanely in the present, and to meet rather than foretell the future.”

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