Understanding Your World, and Yourself
BY DAVID S. LEWIS
To be ignorant of what happened before you were born is to remain a child always.
As people reach middle age you here them say that as kids they didn’t care much for history, but that as they aged they began to find it fascinating (thank goodness, because this month’s issue is loaded with it). These could be people from the days when history was prominently taught in elementary and high schools, giving kids an overview of the foundations of Western Civilization (ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, the Greeks and Romans, European history, then American history, including the all important American Revolution), but who had foist upon them history courses heavy on memorization and light on good storytelling.
Nowadays, and it may not be fair to generalize, and depending on the school district, there’s another problem—kids learn about history in drips and drabs as it comes up in Social Studies, and critics convincingly assert that this is to the detriment of students and to our country.
Leaving that aside, why do people find history more interesting as they grow older? After all, the history didn’t change, rather something about the people did or their perception of history. Think of it this way. When you’re a kid, everything is new and you barely have a chance to think about how or why things are the way they are. You just take it all in. As you get older, if you have any sense, you begin to question, and as you get a lot older you find yourself wondering about the lives of your parents, all the things they never talked about, that which preceded and set the stage for your own birth, your very existence, and you wonder about your grandparents and the things they endured, having fled perhaps a life and society that offered little hope and quite possibly severe dangers—famine, poverty, oppression, or in more distant times having been brought here on a slave ship. Maybe they settled in Montana as pioneers, eeking out a living on the dry eastern plains, living in a hovel made of sod plucked from the prairie, or perhaps your ancestors’ lives consisted of a combination of these trials and challenges.
How, then, were their hearts and minds shaped by such struggles and triumphs, and did they not pass along something of themselves through the years and generations to you?
By way of example, we called Henry Real Bird recently (see pages 17&20) about Crow Fair and learned that his great grandfather helped bring about the first Crow Fair rodeo, which continues to this day (a modern expression of ancient Crow horse culture), a key part of a gathering that brings together various tribes and preserves their old ways for all to behold and appreciate. This is family history, but also American and tribal history, and through it we broaden our horizons by gaining understanding about the lives of others, enriching our own character.
History is also reality, and just as individuals and families have pasts that shape the present and future, so do peoples, towns and nations. Tracing such threads and footsteps back in time then fundamentally reveals who we are by revealing that which has shaped our identity, or the identity of a people.
It is almost bizarre then that history has taken a back seat to other priorities. A great popular historian of our time, who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, David McCullough, was quoted last year in Brian Bolduc’s Wall Street Journal article Don’t Know Much About History (also the title of a song by the great Sam Cooke). “We’re raising young people who are, by and large, historically illiterate,” McCullough said. “History textbooks,” he went on, “are “badly written...so politically correct as to be comic. Very minor characters that are currently fashionable are given considerable space, whereas people of major consequence (such as inventor Thomas Edison) are given very little space or none at all.”
At an event in October of last year, McCullough remarked, tellingly, that the reason people are taken with his books is because they never learned about the subjects he writes about in school, particularly American History.
We offer no indictment here of local schools, because we have not researched their curricula, but do offer some advice to students, that they emulate those who discover history later in life, and so that advice is simple—read. Start with McCullough (or some author of your choosing). Choosing your fascinations, you will find that which you discover on your own far more interesting than watching TV or texting, and that as you read and learn you hunger for more (and become a more interesting person). It’s a wonderful way, at any age, to supplement your education. We recommend this especially to high school and college-age students. Instead of leaving your education to others, you might take matters into your own hands, develop your mind and understanding. Reading history (and other subjects) also makes sense if you plan to skip college and work in the trades. Reading on your own, you can attain the equivalent of a liberal arts education or better (without the benefit of a degree, but also without the political baggage of a biased professor). The greatest benefit though is to yourself and your growth as a human being. In this media-centric world, what’s more, you won’t be so easily fooled by slogans and sloppy thinking, not when you’ve come into your own by developing your powers of intellectual discrimination.
Note: In 2008 Common Core published a study that documented the knowledge of history and literature of 17 year-old students in the United States. More than one fourth believed Christopher Columbus sailed for the New World after 1750.
A 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress study showed only 13 percent of high school seniors had proficiency in American history, only 18 percent of eighth graders, and 22 percent of fourth graders.
McCullough offered this insight: “History is often taught in categories—women’s history, African American history, environmental history—so that many students have no sense of chronology…no idea of what followed what.”