Since for some reason I cannot access D2L, which is where the bulk of my work needs to be done, I figured it was a good time to come and ramble about something that has been on my mind since I’ve been teaching, but has been weighing heavily these last few weeks.
It seems like whenever I ask students, either in class or my office or just in casual conversation about something that happened in the past (ranging from the 1990s to before 10,000 BCE), I get blank stares or comments such as “I don’t know; I always hated history.” Hated history? What could that possibly mean?
How can one hate the entire span of time before one existed? Does it mean one hates all of the people that existed that lived before you? Why? Because their lives are too incomprehensible? But surely that can’t apply to people living in the 1980s? What did they do to deserve being hated by vast legions of high school and college students?
No, you say, it isn’t that you hate the actual people. Then what is it you hate? I mean, hate is such a strong word. Do you hate that time is passing? Seems strange, for such young people to be worrying about that. Do you hate that exciting things keep happening and you weren’t there to witness them? Is it kind of like missing a great party?
Finally we narrow it down – it isn’t history everyone hates; it was history class. Why do so many conflate (confuse) the two things? If people have an astronomy class they don’t like, they don’t start hating stars. But for some reason, nearly every 20-something I’ve had this discussion with over the last 10 years truly believes he or she does not like history because they had a bad experience with how history was taught in grade school or a college class.
And I agree. (About grade school I mean; there is such tremendous variety in the way college history classes are taught that I wouldn’t dare generalize. So if you don’t like the one you are in, check out some other ones.) But about grade school, I remember how horrible history classes were. The textbooks were just awful. They were all about battles and war strategies. We were required to memorize each general’s movements in all of the major wars, and we were required to regurgitate the dates of the sinking of battleships and I’m not surprised that many people come away from those classes thinking that history is just “one damn war after another,” to paraphrase a great man.
But if you limit yourself to what you were forced to memorize in gradeschool (if indeed your instruction was as poor as mine was), then you are cheating yourself of not only some of the most fascinating things you could possibly ever learn, but also some of the most important.
There are so many ways to learn more about history. You can always take classes, of course, and read biographies and scholarly articles and books.
But one of my favorite way to fill in gaps in my knowledge and to soak up details of a period and a place is to read historical fiction. It has to be good, obviously; try to find out if other people think highly of how well researched the book is. You don’t want to delve into a book, learn a whole bunch of things about a historical era and then find out it was all wrong! Been there, done that. It isn’t fun. So, for example, stay away from Diana Gabaldon after the second book. Success must have gone to her head and she flat out quit doing any reasonable attempt at research.
The absolute queen of the historical novel is Dorothy Dunnett. But she’s pretty heavy. You might want to start with something a little less intense, like Iain Pear’s An Instance of the Fingerpost, or Connie Willis’ The Domesday Book, which is about time travel to England during the plague. For alternate history that will still teach you a lot of real history and political theory and that is laugh-out-loud funny, try Eric Flint’s Ring series, which begins with 1632. If anyone shows any interest at all, I will make more recommendations.
Knowing history is important for so many reasons – it makes your head a more interesting place to live; it makes you look like you know what you are talking about; you actually know what you are talking about; you are not doomed to make the same mistakes over and over again; you are able to see patterns unfolding over vast periods of time, instead of being limited to just your own lifetime and maybe that of your parents; it is what separates the truly educated from the merely trained . . . I’m sure I can think of many more!