The University of Kentucky Libraries’ prestigious Medallion for Intellectual Achievement was presented last week to James C. Klotter, the state historian and author or editor of 20 books about Kentucky history. The award was presented by UK President Eli Capilouto at UK Libraries Spring Gala.
Noting that the award has been presented annually since 1990 when it first went to another historian, the late Thomas D. Clark for whom the Center for Kentucky History in Frankfort is named, Capilouto said it was established to promote creative thought, to encourage education and to recognize top-level intellectual effort.
With the support of Clark, Klotter and Lowell Harrison of Western Kentucky University co-authored A New History of Kentucky, which in the 1980s became the standard text that replaced the history published by Clark in 1960.
Without quoting advice by our lieutenant governor in a recent interview with a university student paper, Klotter observed that “Clio, the muse of history, is under attack these days.” Defending the uses of history to teach critical thinking in a tech-centered world, Klotter spoke mostly with humor, but in the words of an old time political campaigner, he “threw down the hay where the goats can get it.”
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In a joking twist to the adage about learning or repeating the mistakes of history, he said “those who do not remember their past are condemned — to spend a lot of time looking for their cars in crowded parking lots.”
“For anyone who says history is not important, tell your doctor not to look at your chart, to ignore your medical record — and see how long that visit takes.”
“Those who are ignorant of the past are like figures in Greek mythology who drink from a river in Hades and lose their memory. They become endless wanderers, without direction, without a purpose.”
Visiting the past, he said, is like going to a foreign country where they do things differently, and you can come back with a different sense of otherness and appreciate what motivated them. In our time, we are given a better sense of tolerance, making us more open minded. A knowledge of history produces better citizens in many ways.”
A former executive director of the Kentucky Historical Society, Klotter since 1998 has taught at Georgetown College. In both positions, as a public historian he has given over 1,000 public presentations, headed five historical associations, and, with his wife Freda, co-wrote a textbook for elementary students.
With that, he said, “there are Klotter texts on Kentucky history from grade 4 through college. Students can now be sick of Klotter at any level.”
Seriously, he said, history shouldn’t be date after date, fact after fact, but rather stories that engage us to develop an inquiring mind. It should call out history’s villains, but also give us the heroes. “Perhaps with such an approach we can avoid moments like when one student asked on a test where Kentucky is, replied, ‘On Page 76.’ Or the other student who answered the same test, ‘Kentucky is north of Tennessee, at the present time.’”
Writing, which he said he does on a legal pad by hand, “is a lonely undertaking. You sit alone for hours doing research. As someone said, ‘writing is easy. All you have to do is stare at a blank piece of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.’”
As for teaching, he said, a teacher can never tell where his influence stops. “Henry Adams (acclaimed as perhaps the greatest American historian) said ‘a teacher affects eternity.’” Who among us will not go to our grave remembering at least one teacher who changed our way of thinking and thus perhaps our life?
Al Smith, co-founder of the Kentucky Oral History Commission, was founding host of KET’s ‘Comment on Kentucky’.