A good friend linked to this article on America’s new historically illiterate generation. In some ways, I think it’s meant to be a wake-up call. It should be. One of my majors in college was History. I loved the study of history. And do you know why? Well, there are several reasons. As a fairly young child (I was an astonishingly precocious reader), my mother would always stop at the Historical Marker signposts long any US Highway we were on. On each of our many, many road trips, we took scenic by-ways and stopped to read historic plaques about what had happened in this place or that.
We also went and visited the sights of Alabama’s history. I loved Moundville, which features a Native American civilization that lived in Alabama. I though that the First White House of the Confederacy was amazing. It seems many people aren’t aware that Montgomery Alabama was the first capital of the secessionist states. We used to visit the north Hull Street Historic District and my imagination was inspired by the dog trot house (there are rooms on either side of a breeze way in the center (you know where the dogs could trot). These weren’t dead places that someone lived a long time ago. They were windows into the past. They were places that I could imagine.
I also loved to read books about historic figures. Who didn’t love Little House on the Prairie? Who didn’t want to be Laura Ingalls? I sure hope the author of that one got it right, because it forms many of my memories and understanding of that time in history. Learning about history was about meeting myself. It was about seeing other times and places that I could have lived. It was about understanding that history wasn’t some long ago thing that happened in some far off place. It happened right here. Wherever you are, the place has a story. And in that story, there was a character like you. Someone that you can relate to and understand lived there. I graduated to reading historical novels by the likes of Gore Vidal. These days I’m taken by Phillippa Gregory and her ability to paint a picture of King Henry VIII and other royals of England.
I also learned from an amazing teacher. She loved American history. In particular, she loved the presidents. She knew trivial facts about each president (like did you know that John Quincy Adams swam nude in the Potomac River every morning? Or how about that Garfield was shot in the White House by a deranged fellow who thought he was owed a job in the government?) She brought the presidents to life, their oddball antics, their personalities. She changed them from old, dead, white guys to people who had their own odd situations. This one had a mentally ill wife, that one hated his successor, another told his White House staff to keep everything ready for him and he’d be back after four years (he was). In short, she made them real.
When I saw the article noted above, I was saddened. After all, if Americans don’t learn our history, who will? Arabs learn their history (often by rote memorization and often with no connections to the events, but…). They won’t learn America’s history. Why should they. I am sad to think that schools aren’t taking field trips to historical sites near them. I would like for all Americans to visit Colonial Williamsburg and see history literally come to life. History is a cornerstone in understanding ourselves. We need to know where we’ve been. That provide the platform and springboard to know where we can go.
And, one of the very best ways to learn about history – kind that you’ll actually remember – is to encourage questions. It’s not to force-feed dates… very few of them will stick. It’s to teach students to have an inquiring mind and want to know who, when, were, and how. If all you are ever taught to do is take notes and then spit out what a professor or book said about someone at some time said, you will fail in applying anything you’ve learned about history. To leave you with food for thought, one of my entry-level college History courses has this question on its mid-term exam: What was the most influential war in the 20th century and why. Talk about a tough thing to answer. But, what a great question that can result in so many amazing answers, all of them equally right.