When I was in 8th grade, my history teacher led my class through a discussion exploring the question of why study history. She attempted to debunk popular ideas on the subject, such as “those who don’t study history inevitably repeat it.” Finally, she told us the only reason we study history is simply because it’s an interesting story.
Why a teacher would want to demean her subject, I don’t know, but I was wise enough not to believe her. I intuitively knew history is important, and to this day I feel cheated that my public schools didn’t teach history more rigorously. A few years later, I came across a quote by Michael Crichton, author of “Jurassic Park,” which I would put in the mail and send to my 8th grade history teacher if I could remember her name and knew her address. Crichton explains exactly why history is crucial: “If you don’t know history, you don’t know anything; you’re a leaf that doesn’t know it’s part of a tree.”
I have known some leaves who were shockingly clueless about our tree, such as a teenager who couldn’t tell me what event we were commemorating on the Fourth of July. This teenager was a good student and is now in medical school!
My husband—an educator who eats, drinks and dreams educational policy—tells me public schools don’t have a rigorous history curriculum because it has become too controversial. Conservatives want to promote a glowing history of heroic founding fathers and liberals want to promote a critical history of suffering slaves. I’m annoyed by this debate because it’s no reason to neglect something essential; we can and ought to teach both sides of the story.
In the mean time, I’ve seen no evidence that history curriculum has improved since I was in school, so I’m planning to supplement my children’s education at home. I have enough grasp of history to teach my children a basic outline of America’s past from colonial times to the present, and I can offer them a few insights about Europe’s past and how it relates to our hemisphere, but that’s about all. The rest of my knowledge is just tidbits I’ve gleaned from various sources. I don’t even know enough to offer a basic outline of the rise and fall of the world’s great empires. Considering that I’ve always been highly interested in the subject—I would have eaten it up if my school teachers had challenged me—this is a little sad.
Not overly sad, though, because I can rectify the situation. Sitting on my parent’s hearth is a book by Jacques Barzun, a leading historian of the 20th Century, titled “From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life.” The book was published in 2000, when the author was 93 years old. About a week ago, I read the introduction and prologue, in which he describes how he was able to write this book because he’d spent his entire life studying history. The introduction was riveting, and I wanted badly to read all night (if only my babies didn’t wake up so early!). Barzun describes major ideas and themes he sees as shaping our history, such as Primitivism (desire to return to a simple, uncivilized life) and Emancipation (desire to be unshackled by the past and its constraints). He makes the interesting assertion that boredom and fatigue have been major forces of change, and he promises that he will challenge the reader’s assumptions, explaining the merit of systems and ideas now universally despised.
His introduction validates my belief that as we study history we become less provincial, less beholden to our own culture. We see the world through a different lens; we hold present-day ideas up against centuries of experience; we recognize more readily a flimsy fad; we see more powerfully an enduring truth. In my view, our generation seems to be suffering from two bogus concepts that Barzun mentions: “It is a false analogy with science that makes one think latest is best” and (quoting William James) “Every thought and act owes its complexion to the acts of your dead and living brothers.” These truths are obvious enough to even the most casual students of history, but in our day-to-day lives, how often do we assume that our perspective is more enlightened than our grandparents’ and that we deserve credit for our ideas?
Love of history is probably in my DNA, but this DNA has been nurtured by my Mormon culture. Like Jews and other Christians, Latter-day Saints spend a lot of time studying the ancient Israelites of the Old and New Testaments. We also study the history of the ancient Americas, as recorded in The Book of Mormon, and the beginnings of our church in the early 1800s. We study this history with the idea that all people who have ever lived are linked together biologically, culturally and spiritually. The world’s inhabitants may seem vast and innumerable to us, but to God we are a small, intimate family. He does not forget a single man or woman any more than a mother forgets her child. History helps me see how each person—each leaf—has a small but essential place on our family’s tree.