Lost Chances, Old Wounds, and Poverty: Berry and Klotter Offer Lessons for Future

by John Gregory | 06/10/14 10:42 AM

Kentucky is a state steeped in history, yet has that affection for the old times kept the commonwealth from moving forward into a better future?

Through their writings, teaching, and public speaking, Wendell Berry and James Klotter have helped many Kentuckians understand their collective past.

The two men shared a stage at the Thomas Clark Center for Kentucky History last Saturday to discuss the importance of studying the past as a way to prepare for the future. The program was part of the Kentucky Historical Society’s Boone Day festivities to mark the 222nd anniversary of statehood. KET's Renee Shaw moderated the thought-provoking and wide-ranging conversation.

From left, KET's Renee Shaw, writer Wendell Berry, and historian James Klotter speaking at Boone Day festivities at the Clark Center for Kentucky History in Frankfort. (Photos courtesy of Kentucky Historical Society/Kentucky Office of Creative Services)

From left, KET's Renee Shaw, writer Wendell Berry, and historian James Klotter speaking at Boone Day festivities at the Clark Center for Kentucky History in Frankfort. (Photos courtesy of Kentucky Historical Society/Kentucky Office of Creative Services)

The Value of History
Whether addressing political leaders, civic groups, or his students at Georgetown College, state historian James Klotter says he emphasizes that history is more than academic pursuit, but something that informs our daily lives. Our medical records at the doctors’ offices, the financial records we keep for our taxes, even legal precedents lawyers cite in their work all constitute a form of history. He says through history we gain an appreciation for the diversity of life, and develop empathy for those who lived it.

"Without history, life is going to be a very dry, very dull, very passionless," Klotter says. "If we ignore the humanities, ignore history, then our life is going to be very weak, indeed."

But embracing that history-and taking responsibility for it-is not an easy or happy task, according to Wendell Berry, the renowned poet, essayist, and Henry County farmer. He sees Kentucky's history as dominated by themes of violence, racism, and depletion of natural resources. In a culture so focused on the future, Berry says the only thing we can truly know is the past, and the lessons we can learn from it.

"The reason to study these things, our heritage of these problems, is a kind of moral desperation to keep from being a link between that heritage and whatever we're going to have in the way of a future," Berry says.

The Case for Teaching History
Berry laments that one facet of what he calls the disintegration of families and communities today is that young people don't learn history from their elders or grasp the connections that can stretch across multiple generations.

"And so this saddles the schools and the teachers with the function of handing on the past," Berry explains. "It includes the cultural inheritance, it includes the historical record, and it includes, you hope, some way of thinking about what has been handed on."

With few standards in place for what Kentucky students must be taught about the history of the commonwealth-and an increasing emphasis on the disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and math (called STEM curriculum by educators) - Berry worries how losing a firm foundation in history might affect younger generations.

Henry County farmer and writer Wendell Berry.

Acclaimed poet, essayist, and farmer Wendell Berry lives in Henry County, Kentucky.

"When you take history out of the curriculum, you've really disfigured the whole concept of education," says Berry. "If you turn out somebody who's adept in these money-making disciplines, and that somebody has no sense of history, you've just made a dangerous person."

Klotter expands on that idea to say that STEM courses tend to emphasize that problems have only one correct answer, whereas history and the humanities embrace shades of gray that may lead to multiple answers to a question. "As you explore the world around you, you don't see the world in black and white terms; you see it terms that are much more complex than that," Klotter says. "So in that sense it gives us a much broader way to look at the world."

As Kentucky schools implement the new Common Core State Standards for English and math, Klotter is part of a team developing the C3 Curriculum, which stands for college, career, and civic life. That framework will guide educators on how to teach social studies subjects like history. He says teachers want to include more Kentucky history at all school levels, but state officials need to ensure that educators have sufficient background in history themselves as well as the resources they need to effectively integrate those lessons into the classroom.

"We've got to make sure that the people who are teaching history know history in the first place, or else you're going to have the blind leading the blind," Klotter says.

Turning Points in Kentucky History
One thing Klotter likes to include in his history talks is a list of "lost opportunities" for the commonwealth. Four such items he often shares are:

  • In the early 1800s, Lexington's Transylvania University, with its state-supported law and medical schools, was on the path to becoming the premier educational institution of the South, and a leading school in the young nation. But then Transylvania's president at the time angered the governor and local religious leaders, who reduced their support for the university. The school never fully recovered.
  • In the early 1900s, Berea College was the last integrated college left in the South. Klotter says Kentucky could have led the region in race relations by allowing the school to continue to educate whites and African Americans together, but instead passed the Day Law in 1904 to segregate all public and private schools in the commonwealth.
  • In the 1920s, Gov. William Fields proposed a $75 million bond issue-three times the state budget at the time-to support education, roads, and infrastructure. Kentucky lagged in those areas, and the funding would have helped make the commonwealth a leader in each of those sectors. Voters defeated the proposal.
  • And during the Great Depression, Louisville-based BancoKentucky, the South's biggest financial institution, failed due to poor leadership. Klotter says had that bank survived, Kentucky could have been the financial center of the region.

Old Wounds Remain Fresh Today
Berry says the state isn't very good about acknowledging its mistakes, or examining how those losses continued to affect the commonwealth for generations. He believes Kentuckians don't begin to comprehend the violence the Civil War caused and the depth of enmity and vengefulness it engendered for years after the formal fighting ended. As an example, he cites how vigilantes killed some 100 people in Henry and Owen counties a decade after Appomattox.

Another instance of a lingering 19th-century wound is the state song, “My Old Kentucky Home.” Berry contends the "historical inheritance" of the song was destroyed when legislators, responding to racial sensitivity and political correctness, changed the lyrics to replace the word "darkies" with "people." That action, according to Berry, diluted the true meaning of the song in which a black man in Kentucky is captured and sold to a slave master in the deep South, while his wife is left weeping with a broken heart.

"We've wiped that all out," Berry exclaims. "We stand up there and sing that and it's pure sentiment now. It doesn't mean a damn thing."

Klotter adds that when Stephen Foster wrote the song, his original title was "Uncle Tom, Goodnight," a nod to Harriet Beecher Stowe's anti-slavery novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin." But Foster and his publisher feared the title would hurt sales of the sheet music in southern states, so they changed the title to "My Old Kentucky Home."

State historian James Klotter

State historian James Klotter teaches at Kentucky’s Georgetown College.

The Persistence of Poverty
Weathering the changes of the last century has been made more difficult by the significant levels of poverty present in Kentucky. This is especially true for African Americans, who, Berry says, suffered a drastic uprooting with the end of slavery and the transition from a familiar, largely agrarian economy to a more urban, industrial economy. Even if they were poor, the land gave those individuals a measure of self-sufficiency and economic competence, Berry explains. But city life proved to be totally different.

"If you know how to live where you live, to be poor is not at all the same thing as to be poor and helpless in an alien situation," Berry says.

Poverty has also been endemic to the coal-producing counties of Eastern Kentucky. The industry has a long tradition in Appalachia, and Klotter contends coal is usually viewed more through the lens of that history than its current realities. He says a greater number of people are employed at UPS in Louisville than work in the coal industry these days, and manufacturing is a far bigger part of the state economy than mining.

Berry argues the current debate about the "war on coal" has no meaning because mechanization in the industry itself caused more job losses than environmental regulations. He says the solutions to poverty in Eastern Kentucky won't be addressed through political actions like the War on Poverty.

"It didn't stop poverty because it didn't stop the ruin of the region," Berry says. "I don't think you can solve poverty as an economic or financial problem and still allow the ground to be destroyed under people's feet. … All these people yelling about jobs and coal and the war on coal and the EPA have sat by and said nothing, while we let the economy of a quarter of this state depend upon an extractive and exploitative and brutal industry without ever proposing that economy ought to be diversified."

Government can play a positive role in bettering people's lives, though. Berry points to the federal program that regulated tobacco production in Kentucky for decades. He says it's a prime example of government doing for people what they can't do for themselves.

"It pretty much made possible a livable life and a decent income for a lot of people over a fair amount of time," Berry explains. "And the great thing about it was that, under that program, the small producer had exactly the same power, on the market, as the large producer."

Berry and Klotter agree that a knowledge of and appreciation for history can help citizens and leaders in Kentucky better address the challenges the state faces today — and — chart a course for its future. Klotter contends that future should be defined by more than financial prosperity.

"Kentucky shouldn't necessarily aim to be the biggest state, or the most industrialized state, or the most urban state, or the richest state. We should aim to be the best state to live in," Klotter says. "That deals with quality of life, the cultural aspects of this state. It's not just the money, it's how you live with that money."