But in the last 50 years we have also neglected, to our great peril, a second field of study. And by “we” I don’t mean just our young people, but all of us.
We have discarded learning about our past.
The majority of Americans, citizens who vote in our elections, people who believe we live in the most desperate of times, don’t know a damn thing about history, their own or anyone else’s.
Don’t believe me? Ask a few people why the American Revolution occurred. Ask them who once burned the White House. Ask them when the Great Depression took place and how it changed our government. Ask them what effect World War I still exerts on our modern world.
This profound ignorance contributes much to the hysteria and unhappiness infecting our society. Go online to most conservative and progressive sites, and you’d think we were living in the worst of all ages. Both Left and Right go at each other tooth-and-claw online, trying to screech each other down and in many cases giving way to obscenities and ad hominem attacks. Some on the Left appear to despise their country and their heritage; many on the Right believe we are on the brink of collapse. According to some, humankind has never lived in such misery.
Let’s hit the pause button and take a look at some history.
Let’s jump into a time machine and slip into the past. Let’s go back to 476 A.D. when the Roman Empire had finally fallen apart. Let’s fast-forward that machine to 1349, when the Black Plague was devastating Europe. Let’s pay a little visit to the Thirty Years War in Germany (1618-1648), when murder, rape, and cannibalism were rampant. Let’s jump ahead another 300 years to the trenches and battlefields of World War I, where shells, bullets, gas, and disease killed millions. Let’s not forget to visit the Ukraine when Stalin and his henchmen were starving its inhabitants to death, or to stop by in Poland a few years later, when the Nazis were marching Jews to annihilation.
And of course, we mustn’t forget our own country. Hop aboard that slave ship coming from West Africa to Charleston. Stand beside that Massachusetts farmer in 1775 as British soldiers march through his fields on the way to Lexington. Visualize yourself as a mountain conscript from Sylva on July 3, 1863, when you’re about ready to swing out into that broad, open field under the command of General Pickett. Envision yourself as a healthy, young American male listening to the radio on Dec. 7, 1941.
You think we have it tough these days? Do some time-traveling and then think again.
And how do you travel back into the past and gain the perspective it provides?
You read history.
Long ago, I majored in history in college, earned a master’s degree, and spent a year in a doctoral program. Since then, I have read many histories and biographies, some of which I have reviewed here. Last Jan. 1, I made a New Year’s resolution to read my way through the 11 volumes of Will and Ariel Durant’s’ The Story of Civilization, almost 9,000 pages, before the year’s end. Right now I am on track to complete that resolution, having almost finished Volume VII: The Age of Reason Begins. When I open one of these books, I keep a highlighter and pen at hand, but mostly I read as if cruising through a novel.
Despite my casual approach, The Story of Civilization has brought me many gifts. The one pertinent to this review is perspective. We inhabit an age where the average citizen lives with greater ease and comfort than a Roman emperor, where most of us have access to medical care the Renaissance might envy, where we eat foods unimaginable to Louis XIV. All the caterwauling, slander, and obscenities of today’s politics hardly hold a candle to the fierce arguments and battles of the Reformation.
Reading history offers a long view, and that long view in turn offers balance. And God knows we live in a place and time that lacks balance.
Below are some time-traveling machines I have enjoyed.
Want to understand the people of Appalachia better? Read Jim Webb’s Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America.
Want a book that will tear your heart out over lost opportunities, failed diplomacy, and the wickedness in the human heart? Read Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke: The Beginnings Of World War II, The End Of Civilization.
Looking for explanations of our culture and how it came into being? Read Simon Goldhill’s Love, Sex & Tragedy: How The Ancient World Shapes Our Lives.
Looking to understand the sacrifices people have made for liberty? Read David McCullough’s John Adams or Eugene Sledge’s With The Old Breed: At Peleliu And Okinawa.
Want to see how your country came into being? Read Catherine Drinker Bowen’s Miracle At Philadelphia: The Story Of The Constitutional Convention May-September 1787, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and still in print after 60 years. (And then read the Constitution.)
Please, America, learn some history.
And get a grip.