The recent US election has shown, among many things, that various segments of the population, but particularly younger people are missing a vital facet of education…knowledge of the past and how our written laws and systems of governance emerged from the circumstances of their era and reached up to become supra-generational universalisms (I just made that last one up). For instance, the hotly debated and debased electoral college. Some hate it, but they don’t know why. Some love it, but they don’t know what it is.
This is where context comes in. In the study of history (which we all should be doing, by the way) context is a short mental rehearsal of the key players, national and individual, and the geo-political or cultural spectrum of the day. Religious institutions and mores, popular societal trends, styles of government, etc. We do this when we begin to study a new historical topic. Good historians will write books interwoven with context, unfortunately, so will bad historians who make up non-existent context. One has to do a little individual research.
For instance, one popular slogan goes, “we don’t need that electoral college, we just need a popular vote!” Sounds all neo-socialist, get rid of the elitists, etc, but the reality is that government structures like the electoral college were originally implemented as a check and a balance against any one side of the US government quadrangle of executive-legislative-judicial-demos (the voters) from misusing its power and presuming to take privileges that don’t belong to it. This was a reaction, in part to the governmental institutions of Enlightenment Era Europe (which only went so far), and the remaining monarchies that ruled nations through both religion and dominion or kingship. The balance of power wasn’t. It was also a reaction to the constitutional monarchy of England and the peculiarly interwoven parliamentary system through which aristocrats and semi-common men could rule. America sought a system with a greater balance of power.
And it is only through a kind of intergovernmental detente that our system works. Thing is, many people would like to up end the balance, from all sides of the political spectrum, in order to funnel power their way. Hence we have checks and balances, however imperfectly they function.
So there you have it, a small sampling of context and how it applies to understanding the past and the world around us now.
Where do you need to apply the tool of context for better understanding?
Keep thinking history!
– Amanda Stiver