The Common Good

From Particular to General

When and how one may draw general conclusions from particular evidence is a frequently debated question. One example is museums – do historical museums exist to preserve the evidence and artifacts of a particular experience, or should they attempt to draw generalized lessons from that experience? A thoughtful piece by Edward Rothstein in the New York Times examines how Holocaust museums in Israel are being retooled to educate on what are seen as the “universal lessons.” 

Rothstein takes issue, arguing that this

“leaves Holocaust museums intellectually orphaned. What “lessons” are we supposed to take away? The impulse has been to generalize, to say that a Holocaust museum can’t be “just” about the murder of Jews during World War II.

“Why? Is there a problem, say, with an American slavery museum being “just” about American slavery? Why should Holocaust museums deal with notions of tolerance or racism in general, or even genocide in general? Why do we think that the proper lesson comes from generalizing rather than comprehending the particular? The moment we generalize, we strip away details: we lose information and create equivalences that may be fallacious.”

I’m inclined to agree. Some events in history deserve to be remembered and pondered in their own right, not simply as things from which to draw general lessons.