“Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.” – Edmund Burke
“History is an account, mostly false, of events, mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers, mostly knaves, and soldiers, mostly fools.” – Ambrose Bierce
“All the lessons of history in four sentences: Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad with power. The mills of God grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly small. The bee fertilizes the flower it robs. When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.” – Charles A. Beard
I have a mental block with dates. I can’t remember any of significance. This is why I can’t remember your birthday without Facebook, my sister Deryn (who seems to have a mental database), or you telling me yourself. It is not personal if I forget yours….I can’t always remember my own! And Facebook and Deryn aren’t 100% reliable about reminding me, so blame them. Or blame yourself….you need to tell me! I won’t be insulted or think badly of you for wanting others to know…I think we all should celebrate that great day in history.
But anyway, I’m not talking birthdays here…..I am talking about this mental block with dates. Well, not really the mental block but the fact that I love history, but cannot pinpoint when anything happened. I do remember that in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue…..but that is about it. It’s pretty embarrassing. Years and time just spin my head and I can’t get a handle on them. I can not only miss dates by decades, but probably centuries. Yes, it is that bad.
People who love history will generally tell you that the dates are hugely significant. For me, however, it’s all about the stories. As I think about it, I have had mostly great history teachers and almost every single one of them told me a story that got my attention. Those stories shaped me, sometimes in ways that I only can detect in retrospect.
I think it began in 7th grade. Frank Harris was my teacher (thanks for the name recall, friends!) and I remember very clearly the intrigue he created when he told the stories of Rasputin, Nicholas and Alexandra, and their son Alexi. It was like a serial drama….OK, it really was a serial drama. There was a royal love story, there was the “is he good or evil?” character Rasputin, there was the long awaited son that was born and found to have hemophilia, there were rumors, there was intrigue. That was the first time I recall hearing about hemophilia…..and I remember hearing about the things that hemophiliacs endured back then (the leeches, the pain, the limitations on lifestyle.) I never forgot it.
Many, many years later I was involved in an issue at work that dealt with the care of hemophiliacs. I know those stories of the past colored my decision making. In a good way. Without that tug at my heart from long ago and the knowledge that I had gained from reading more about the disease because I found it fascinating, my passion could have fallen on the side of the most sound business decision. While I could have made a strong argument for that sound business decision in this instance (and I did, so we could all consider all the angles), ultimately the right decision for my company was not the “best business decision” and not doing what everyone else was doing. The right decision was to do everything we could to take care of sick people whose health care was better than it had been back in Alexi’s day, but still a constant struggle.
Then there was 10th grade. Joe Holpp was my history teacher. I loved his subtle humor as he told us stories from the past. I remember studying about the horrible things going on in the meat packing industry in the early 20th century (don’t worry….I checked myself on that date), the subject of the book “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair. He let me read parts of the book out loud. Great stuff for a high schooler who loved grossing people out with the power of words. The passages about the putrid meat….awesome! But I got more out of it than that. Not only did I learn a certain amount of skepticism for corporate America through our study, but it also fueled my opinions about social activism. Why didn’t people do something sooner? Even if it meant they lost their jobs? Even if it meant they lost everything? Where was their compassion for their fellow man? I understand why they didn’t a bit more nowadays….but definitely not completely. I hope I never do. I hope I always see the big picture. I hope I always care enough to speak up.
11th and 12 grade my history teacher was Pat Gainey. He was the teacher who taught us that culture was a big part of our past. Theda Bara, “The Vamp”….I know who she is because of him. Ty Cobb “The Georgia Peach”….again I learned of him from Mr. Gainey. I can still see the picture of William Jennings Bryan walking down the street with the white carnation in his lapel (Mr. Gainey tested us not just on the notes, but gave us picture tests so we could identify these people in a lineup.)
While Mr. Gainey taught us about the politics and the wars, he always included the added dimensions of sports and entertainment. I believe that those who entertain us tell others a lot about who we are as a people….and hate that today’s students probably don’t get history taught with quite that slant (though I personally could have done without the baseball history.)
I love culture. I am fascinated by subjects like what reality television tells us about our world or why we listen to the music we do or how our family life impacts our decision making. These things are important parts of the history of a people. If we discount them, we miss out on important dimensions of why things happen the way they do and what influences people to do the things they do. Mr. Gainey was ahead of his time, I think. Those things have now oozed into our world and it is difficult to separate them from the more “serious” matters of our history. I don’t know that we can anymore. In this world of “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”, we find that life’s all inter-connected. And many people are recording the events from that perspective these days.
Then there was college….the amazing lectures of Dr. James Leutze actually got me to sign up for not just one semester of military history, but two. Dr. Leutze was one of the most popular professors on campus, and it was for good reason. He made you care. He didn’t give out dry facts about wars, he didn’t paint everything with the colors of the American flag….he told stories of flawed generals and bungled strategy and ulterior motives and fluke victories. He suggested possible conspiracy theories. He taught us how things like terrain mattered when you were studying a war. He taught us how to think strategically, and to weigh all of the elements before you make a decision. And then showed us why it mattered….using the triumphs and tragedies of war. Great stuff to learn at that time in my life….and I think I have used that training ever since. On my own personal battlefields.
I can identify very few dates back from history, but I do remember the stories. I am sure some of what I have been taught is wrong, much of what I remember is flawed, and much of what is passed down from generation to generation is biased. Still, if these stories make us think, if they make us consider options, if they teach us to consider alternate strategies for the problems of our day, they are of much value.
As it says in the book of Ecclesiastes “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”
While knowing a date here and there may add dimension to the history I know, I kind of like the purity of just knowing the stories. When I apply what I have learned from history to my life, the date changes anyway, and these stories become just another day under the sun.
(Incidentally, I haven’t met my husband because of my great knowledge of baseball history, as Mr. Gainey said I would after my impassioned complaint about having to study it. While I had it down cold then, my remembrance of that baseball history unit is a bit dim….the batting averages I memorized are now gone by the wayside. Maybe I should see if I still have my notes.)