Many people have said to me that they find history boring. The found it boring as a school subject and never developed an interest afterward. If I don’t say it to their faces at the time, I at least think: Seriously?! Throwing in some more exclamation and question marks for good measure.
Goethe said something on that subject that has stayed with me ever since I first read it, in English it goes like this: he who cannot draw on three thousand years is living from hand to mouth.
I prefer the original German version, which goes something like this: He who cannot give account for 3000 years, may remain in darkness, living from day to day.
The essence is the same. If you don’t know your history, you live in darkness. You live an impoverished life unable to draw on the knowledge, experience and mistakes collected and made by the generations before you.
You may have heard of the likeness of each of us standing on the shoulders of their forebears. I stand on the shoulders of my parents, who stand each on the shoulders of theirs, who stand on the shoulders of theirs and so on. The pyramid you may see initially quickly dissolves and becomes a massive pillar that descends into the depths of time.
With me stands my brother and on the shoulders of my grandparents stand all their children, not just my parents. And not too deep down we find that we share a common ancestry with many of you. After all, today are more people alive than have ever lived in all of human history. If I pursue this thought, however, we would get into evolution and our common roots and how we’re all rather more closely related than many want to know or care to admit, because who would they hate, if I can’t hate the next person of a different colour?
Given how we are all connected to each other and how profound our connection is with and into history, I cannot possibly understand how someone can find history a boring subject. You are basically saying that none of those, whose shoulders you stand on, matters. Yes, they lived, and yes, their living resulted in your life eventually.
But they’re all history, literally as well as figuratively. Your parents, grandparents and great grandparents witnessed history, some of them made it and it shaped the world you’re living in today. You’re doing the same for your children and grandchildren.
We’re back with Terry Pratchett and Tiffany Aching: If you do not know where you come from, then you do not know where you are, and if you do not know where you are, then you don’t know where you’re going.
You can apply that to your life, a journey you’re taking and history. You will never understand today’s world, if you don’t know its history. And this is precisely the reason why history keeps getting repeated. It’s not that we don’t look back at the mistakes of our ancestors and try to do a better job. We don’t know that we should look back, because there may be something we could learn.
In our arrogance we assume we can do better no matter what happened before us. They knew nothing and we know so much more, don’t we. They were all fools, no wonder they didn’t make it. Right?
Some people think that way. Others don’t even wonder. They have no awareness of history and those that came before them. They live in bubbles that don’t just exclude everyone living now, but everyone who ever lived, never once wondering what happened yesterday and if we could learn something from it for tomorrow. I know there are people like that, I have met them. My maternal grandmother was one of them.
My mother instilled my love of history. She gave me books to read about the ancient Greek and Romans, Spartacus being prominent among them. I read many great books and was given a wonderful collection of stories of Adventurers throughout history, starting with Gilgamesh. The book was called “The Eternal Sinbad”. It was one of my favourite books of all time and probably my greatest influence when I was a child and then a teenager.
It certainly mattered more to me than history class at school, which was still the only subject I would raise my hand to answer the teacher’s questions. At times I just left my hand up there and the teacher had to ask the room, if anyone else beside me knew the answer. At least in history class I was extremely cocky, because I knew more than my classmates. I loved that, I have to admit.
There have always been particular periods that captured my interest more at times. I’ve been obsessed with the French Revolution long before we dealt with it in class. I read “Sophie’s World” and really got into Philosophy throughout the ages. Then I read a book on Fermat’s Theorem and since he is a historical person, I read all about him and the hunt for the “simple proof” he claimed to have found. I’m obsessed with the Tudor age, currently swallowing books on the period whole.
I studied Egyptology for crying out loud!
And I only ever think, what’s next? I don’t know nearly enough, but the well I drink from is deep and bottomless.
Unless your teacher cares a great deal about history, they may never be able to instill that kind of love in you. You’re going to have to find it yourself. You don’t even need to love the subject, but not caring is not an option. Not knowing or wanting to know is not an option.
We’re history’s children and we will be its grandparents. We have a responsibility.
We need to be students and then teachers so we won’t ever have to see the end of history, because it will have grown sick of us not learning from it.
Don’t you want to make history instead of just letting it happen to you? Do we want our generation to be remembered as the one who could’ve, but didn’t? I’ve said it before, I’m saying it again.
Who, if not us? When, if not now?
History is not about knowing dates. Most of the time the precise date won’t matter. You’ll know some relevant ones: Independence Day, Bastille Day, the year Columbus “discovered” America, which was also the year the Spanish Reconquista ended, the Great Fire of London, the year Elizabeth I. ascended to the throne, the beginning and end dates (if not years) of World War I and II.
None of this means that you know history. Knowing history is knowing how Elizabeth I. ended up on the the throne of England. How Columbus was enabled to go West. Why the Reconquista happened. What led to the American and then the French Revolutions.
When you begin to understand that and so much more, you’ll know history and you’ll be able to learn from it. And then the fun part is learning that Fermat was a judge and only did Mathematics for fun, that Elizabeth I. had black teeth, because she liked sweets so much, that Columbus wasn’t even a Spaniard.
There isn’t a period in history I’m not interested in. Let me repeat myself: there is so much to learn and so much to draw from, 3000 years are only the tip of the iceberg.
If I had decided on a teaching career, I’d have taught history and I would’ve taught it in a way that would have made my students love it, too. Maybe I’ll get the chance in another life time, but that’ll be the subject of a very different blog.