Come, gather we to the table to hear the great stories of history, to listen as the lives of George Washington, George Herman Ruth, Harriet Tubman, Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, Ernest Hemingway, George Custer, and Martin Luther King, Jr. are told to us. Listen as their lives echo through the time-trapped years; they speak to us—even now—as we relish in their fortitude, their courage, their inventive spirit, their humility and ardor. Once more into the breach of history, dear friends! Once more into the sodden pages of the American story, where men and women who built this great country of ours have lived and died and stood for something greater than themselves. Once more, dear people! Who’s coming with me?
History has become the pariah of American academia. To some, it is a relentless bore, to others, unimportant; still to others, inapplicable, arcane, useless. History.
I cannot cause you to become interested in American History by writing an article. I cannot realistically expect to spark that flame. But somewhere, someday when that U.S. History teacher/coach had his feet propped up on the iron desk, reading the funny papers while the class snoozed at a video about the American Revolution, you watched. Or maybe in your fourth-grade year, you became enthralled at the story of the Trail of Tears— that long, sorrowful westward march by thousands upon thousands of beleaguered Native Americans. Or quite possibly you perked up when you listened to the story of the great general/landowner/Virginian George Washington’s humble, unassuming presidency. Or maybe even your ears tuned in when that one teacher that understood the importance of the JFK assassination described it in a profound and remarkable way. Or maybe, just maybe you read a book a long time ago on the poverty in pre-Civil War Southern agrarian society and you became fascinated. I hope that this article reminds you of that flame.
I hope that today, you will take up and read.
A very useful, quick tool to study history is Wikipedia. I use it all the time—and I don’t consider that geeky at all. In fact, I find tremendous value in reading up on great American lives and the events that defined them. The other day, I was interested to find out about the life of John Wilkes Booth. He was a very popular and well-known actor, but I didn’t realize the expanse of his fame. So you could liken Booth’s assassination of Lincoln to Brad Pitt’s assassination of a modern-day president. Interesting, you say.
Or just the other day, I read up about the life of Edgar Allan Poe. I had always thought him to be a drug addict—at least that’s what I had been taught for years and years. But I found that this quite possibly was a misconception that was hatched by a rival, whose intent was to soil his name in a postmortem, false biographical sketch of the heralded poet. And furthermore, it is plausible that the poet died from the contraction of rabies. Good stuff.
And then of course I was stunned as I read Nicholas & Alexandra by Pulitzer prize-winning author Robert K. Massie. That great work took me back to turn-of-the-century imperial Russia, a largely lavish and opulent (and Christian) society that flourished before the onslaught of communism in 1917. I realized that there were many devout Christian people in a society that today is looked at with a suspecting eye, the remains of a post-Cold War leeriness by the American people based on the disgusting ills of communism under Lenin, Stalin, and Khrushchev.
One of the reasons that I like history so much is that it evokes TRUTH. People often have misconceptions regarding particular men, women, events, movements, political philosophies, etc., and by studying history we can better understand the truth of the matter and form conclusions of our own. By cutting to the core, we are no longer bound by false typecasts or misrepresentations that have been skewed throughout the years.
Biography often can slant the truth, so as historians we are in constant search of an accurate account. This can be both a frustrating and enlightening exercise. Often, discoveries are made that change our opinions or views, and that is where the real intrigue begins.
My good friend has this little thing he does for his classrooms called “Why We Study History.” I think it’s great. Here is what he says.
We study history….
- Because it is required by state law.
- Because it is interesting.
- To help us find out how we arrived at our present state.
- To help us learn from our past mistakes and solutions.
- To help us predict the future.
- To help us understand people.
- To help us read trends.
- To help us make comparisons.
- To help us make decisions today by using past experiences.
- To instill within us a sense of patriotism and national unity.
Then he highlights what he calls “Historical Amnesia,” i.e. “if we don’t know where we’ve been, then we won’t know where we’re going.” This can certainly apply to the direction of this country. If we continue to fail to understand the history of this country, how then can we expect to understand what decisions to make in the future? History is not simply living in the past, it is an understanding of the past to be able to navigate through the present and point our ships into the bright harbors of the future.
If we do not know who we are as a people, we are like ships in the night, setting out with no particular destination—no MANIFEST Destiny—in mind and no real compass to guide us.