It didn't take much prompting for Mike Jacobs, the editor of the Grand Forks Hearald, to offer a few words on the 50th Anniversary of Elwyn B. Robinson's "Themes of North Dakota History" speech. In his usual plain-spoken style, Jacobs contrasted the experience of watching the Space Shuttle Endeavor (which may or may not have carried a satellite built by the University of North Dakota into space) blast off and his father's experiences living in the state 100 years ago. This kind of reflection seems common here in North Dakota. In fact, my experience has been that North Dakotans think more about their varied pasts than any place where I have lived. This interest in the past of the state (always tied in some ways to the future) has occasionally been shared by the national media. National Geographic's article on the abandoned landscape of North Dakota, for example, received some attention. Closer to home, the recent opposition surrounding the move of the Department of History from Merrifield Hall has been articulated at least in part is an affront to the history of the Department and the University (see here, here, here, here). Knee-jerk appeals to history can be depressing and pointless. Jacobs avoid this in the final paragraphs of his editorial where he critiques Robinson's six themes going forward:
"Here is a vivid challenge to Robinson’s themes. The remoteness that he identified, and that North Dakotans of my generation grew up with, has largely vanished, though distance remains a major challenge.
North Dakota is no longer so dependent as it was. The economy is more diverse, and hence more stable. Still, the vagaries of weather and world markets exert an enormous influence.
Similarly, the state’s position has shifted away from economic disadvantage, and that has moderated the radicalism that so characterized the political history of the state during most of my father’s life.
The remaining themes are paired. North Dakotans built too many of almost everything, and we’ve been paring back ever since.
Adjustment meant the loss of thousands of farms and businesses and hundreds of towns and villages. These adjustments took thousands of citizens with them.
But history has made a turn. The 20th century was a time of constant challenge and frequent failure, as Robinson saw, but the new century has brought unprecedented opportunity.
Nothing demonstrates that so clearly, for me, as Friday’s launch.
Robinson’s themes help us to understand the past, and they help to define the present.
But they don’t determine the future. They are admonitions, not axioms, and it was clear Friday that North Dakota will live with them, and not by them."
It's nice to see the history of the department invoked in a positive way.