Who cares?

“Historical fodder: Cannon find fires up historians in Newfoundland”

This article popped up on my Twitter newsfeed recently.  I followed the link because a) it was about a historical discovery and b) it was about Newfoundland (a two part Venn diagram of things I like, if you will).  The article discusses the archaeological discovery of a 400 year old cannon at the community of Cupids, Canada’s oldest British colony.  The discovery is important, as it provides physical evidence of the defensive tactics taken by early colonists that, up until now, has only been supported through documentary evidence.

However, what struck me the most about the article was one of the comments left by a reader:

“A complete waste of taxpayers money. Over 400 yrs ago. What purpose does it serve to dig these things up other then to provide acdemics with jobs?”

Good question.  And, as historians in training, we need to be able to answer this question. In this case, I don’t think the “we need to know about the past in order to understand the future” line would cut it with this guy (or gal).  It seems we are entering a time (or perhaps it is just me entering this field) where academics are having to justify their work more and more.  People want to know why your research matters; what implications it has for the present; how it contributes to society; why they should care.

Right now, I don’t think I have an answer that would satisfy this person.  But I hope to have one by the time I finish this degree.


2 thoughts on “Who cares?

  1. I’ve thought about this a lot.
    I don’t think there is a justification that would cut it with this guy, and there are millions like him.
    One of of humanity’s defining characteristics is its pursuit of knowledge. We are at a point where we expect knowledge about any topic imaginable to be available within seconds.
    Think about the following process. You hear about something or read a word that you are unfamiliar with. You may or may not look it up. Either way, you know that someone, somewhere, possesses this knowledge and you would be able to find your answers fairly easily if you wanted to. It would probably shock and disappoint you if that were not the case.
    Some guy knows everything there is to know about some obscure plant species. Some guy has an intimate knowledge of the mating behavior of dinosaurs. And I guarantee you that these people receive funding through academic institutions that supports their research.
    How do those people benefit me? Individually, only marginally. They benefit the human race as a whole though, because we as a species have an unquenchable thirst for knowledge that only gets stronger as we (gradually) eliminate hunger, disease, and war.
    In any case, stuff like this will always seem like a waste to people that can only view the world in terms of money. And I can understand that. It is difficult to justify academia when there are people starving and wars going on. But it is necessary because it is part of our nature and evolution.
    Just my random thoughts.

  2. Joanna, you reminded me of one of the greatest advantages of reading newspapers online — the comments! Digging up the cannon is literally digging up our history, an artefact from where we have come from. We are not trying to understand the past to understand the present, rather we are remembering society. Like Will, I agree that the pursuit of knowledge is a defining feature of the human race. I am not sure how we could convince the commentator, but I plan on attending UWO’s “Put It Into Practice” conference that directly addresses these issues, so I’ll let you know what I learn!

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