The Past is Public

Earlier this week, I attended the final “Tisch Talk in the Humanities” of the semester. This new series was launched by Tisch College to explore the intersections of humanities and civic work.

The final talk was on “neighboring,” a concept that was here taken to mean – essentially the opposite of “othering.”

When we “other” somebody we set them apart from ourselves. We emphasize difference and reinforce an “us” versus “them” dynamic.

Neighboring doesn’t mean abolishing differences, but rather embracing the broader commonalities of proximity.

We are all people. We are all in the same boat.

These are the declarations of neighboring.

An interesting point emerged from this conversation. Peter Probst, a professor of Art & Art History at Tufts, started discussing neighboring not only in the present tense, but in the context of history – in the context of preservation.

The past is public, he argued.

What we think of as history is actually a collection of individual stories brought into a collective whole.

That collective whole is jointly owned as “history,” but individual stories still have the right to resist the dominant narrative.

Thus preservation can be an act of neighboring, as historians seek to honor individual stories and include diverse narrative as part of the public whole.

If the past is public, then we all must be good stewards – not only of history but of our neighbor’s truths.