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Recently, I stood waist deep with colleagues sorting through old textbooks as we tried to clear bookshelves of outdated material. "Too old for current students, not old enough for historians" was our guiding maxim. Most textbooks over 5 years old did not make the cut. Responding to my tongue-in-cheek assertion that as a historian I was only interested in books over 50 years old, a colleague noted that if we kept tossing there would be no books left for future historians. This got me thinking: What would be helpful for future nurses to learn about nursing in the 21st century?
The first decade of the 21st century has been highly impacted by globalization, advances in technology, and catastrophic events. Nurses have had unprecedented opportunity to respond quickly to global humanitarian disasters. Stories abound of nurses who flew to Haiti, for example, within hours of the earthquake. Such stories are spread through social media, and those wishing to assist can access up-to-the-minute videos, blogs, and photos. "Humanitourism," a new version of individually inspired, short-term humanitarian relief, is a growing phenomenon in Christian nursing circles. Yet, it will take years to understand the impact and influence (both helpful and harmful) on nursing and global health. Future historians will evaluate humanitourism in a way we cannot today; they will have a perspective unavailable to those living through the process.
Similarly, future nurses will have opportunity to understand how the global community prepared and responded (or failed to prepare or respond) to natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, earthquakes in Haiti and New Zealand, and tsunamis in Indonesia and Japan. They may have new insights about the role nurses played in the wake of wars, revolutions and acts of terrorism, from the attacks of 9/11 to the Arab Spring. Future nurses may grapple with lessons embedded in the worldwide economic crisis of 2008 regarding the survival (or not) of expensive healthcare systems. They may heed (or not) warnings that emerged following the outbreak of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and recognize how this crisis affected subsequent pandemic policies. And they may (or not) raise questions about the deaths of nurses and others during these tragedies, and honor those who died.
It would be a shame for future nurses to ignore lessons learned through such a rich period in history as ours, would it not?
Yet, this is exactly our response when we treat contemporary nursing as if it has no past. As Christian nurse philosopher Bart Cusveller notes, "nurses do not learn their practice from a book; they enter the (already existing) profession and are inducted into the profession's tradition" (Cusveller, 2011, p. 150). What message do students receive when we promote and privilege recently published knowledge to such an extent that they graduate with the (mis)understanding that "new" (read: newly published) nursing knowledge is most valuable?
Historical amnesia is dangerous, writes Sioban Nelson (2009). She argues that the main roles of history in nursing are as witness to key events, moments or shifts in history, and in the ongoing development of identity-identity of individuals, groups, nations, or generations. There are "witness" stories we should not forget. These include stories of SARS, 9/11, Rwanda, global natural disasters-and nursing's role therein. They also include older stories, of Hiroshima, the Holocaust, Japanese internment, and the Spanish Flu.
History shapes who we are. I am the granddaughter of "Righteous Gentiles" who hid Jews and resistance workers in their home in Holland during World War II; my grandparents are honored at the Yad Vashem Museum in Jerusalem. Knowing their story informs my identity as a Christian, Canadian daughter of Dutch immigrants, and global citizen. Likewise, my ongoing research into the lives of Christian nurses who worked in China in the early 20th century informs my identity as a Christian, Canadian nurse, and global citizen.
What informs your nursing identity?
Cusveller, B. (2011). In defense of selflessness: A philosophical analysis of a central virtue in professional caring practices. Ethics & Medicine, 27(3), 147-154. [Context Link]
Nelson, S. (2009). Historical amnesia & its consequences. Texto Contexto Enferm, Florianopolis, 18(4), 781-787. [Context Link]
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