Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Who Cares about History?


I have to admit, I am a bit over the top when it comes to history. I teach Jr. High history, I read books about history, I teach community classes about history, I watch movies about history, I write about history, and I am the director of our local history museum. That being said, I have noted a disturbing trend leading people away from studying history. In the schools, there has always been an emphasis placed on testing and this idea continues, especially in the areas of math and reading. Sometimes middle school students who are behind in math and reading skills are removed from history classes until they reach high school. I don’t have anything against math and reading, and I understand that some view test scores as an indicator of success, test scores are linked to funding, and thus the emphasis on reading and math.

I recently read an old journal written in the late 1800s by a schoolteacher from the small town I live in. I was interested to read what school was like over 100 years ago and quickly noticed state tests were given then also. The state test topics the teacher prepared her students for in the late 1800s were Arithmetic, History and Oregon History. I was shocked at this, and the idea that students were tested over two types of history was magnificent. Why was history emphasized as a vital part of learning then, but so easily brushed aside today? I don’t have an answer. At the beginning of each school year, I am reminded that history often does not have a big fan base. I hear my students say history does not matter because it happened so long ago and everyone is dead anyway. When I hear this, I am always quick to remind my students, that this is their future as well, and they had better think about the legacy they will leave.

The filmmaker Ken Burns said, “The great arrogance of the present is to forget the intelligence of the past.” As society moves forward and improves, people sometimes discredit those who came before, thinking that somehow their predecessors lacked intelligence because they did not have our technology. However, those before us, lived with what they had and created better things as they went, just like we do today. The dates were different but the general issues are the same.

A line from a song by the Dixie Chicks reminds us, “Who do we become, without knowing where we started from?”  It is critical to understand the path taken by those before us who got us to where we are today. We have connections to the past that cannot be broken, even if we are ignorant of them; they are still a part of us. Time does not travel in straight lines, but in circles, and these circles connect to others to make patterns that are often repeated throughout history. When we can identify and understand these connections we are privy to amazing insights - ideas that can only be learned by studying history.

Discover the joy of getting to know people who lived before you. Study what they learned during their lives, how they influenced their own circles of history, and how their circle connected to other ones. The great historian David McCullough challenged us, “Because you were born into a particular era doesn’t mean it has to be the limit of your experience. Move about in time, go places. Why restrict your circle of acquaintances to only those who occupy the same stage we call the present?” (Brave Companions, 223) You don’t have to look very far to find hero from the past, common people who lived unbelievable lives. They may have only influenced a few people while they were here, but their influence can continue to inspire us today if we take the time to learn about them.  When we explore the lives of people from the past, we realize they still have lessons we can learn from, and ideas we can aspire to. Take some time to learn about people who lived before you, how they handled challenges and successes, and what they struggled to achieve. They may have lived a very long time ago but you will quickly see that they are more similar to you than you think. 

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Reading Only Three Things


I was reading a book about archeological work done in New Netherland and it mentioned a related book.  A young man, Daniel M. Tredwell, who lived in New York, wrote this additional resource. The book, “Personal Reminiscences of Men and Things on Long Island - Part One,” was published in 1912. I planned to quickly read through the book and get to the archeological parts, but once I started reading I could not stop. The perspective and insights about life in the United States during the late 1800s was riveting. Daniel's book was not written to impress anyone; it was simply a journal about what he observed while growing up. He lived at a time before kindling wood, anthracite coal, gas, friction matches, canned fruit, sewing machines, typewriters, telegraphs, mail, railroads, policemen, cigarettes, blotting paper, and steel pans. He said it was a time when “everybody was happy and content.”

One thing that interested me was the value his family placed on education. There were not a lot of literary resources where Daniel lived, and he mentioned only three things he and his family read regularly. First was the newspaper; his family received two different subscriptions each week delivered by a stage driver. One was The Long Island Telegraph and Friend of Education, and the other was The Long Island Farmer, published in Jamaica. Daniel’s family looked forward to this delivery since it was their “weekly supply of literature and information from the outside world.”
A second piece of reading the Tredwell Family enjoyed was the Farmer’s Almanac, which hung prominently in the chimney corner of their living room. They consulted this piece of literature often to: verify times of the rising and setting of the sun and moon, check tides, and predict the seasons for the coming year. The last part of the almanac had a list of chronological historic events beginning with the Garden of Eden and progressing to the current date. Additionally, the almanac included medical advice and recipes. The Tredwell family pursued scientific and historical occupations later in life and I can’t help but think this book was a major influence in those decisions.

The most interesting piece of literature the Tredwell family read was a manuscript they referred to as the “Old Farm Diary” - it came with the house they lived in. Daniel said it “had been about our house from our earliest recollection.” It was made up of approximately sixty pages, with the first and last pages missing. The faded, brown ink filled the pages and many of the corners were worn off but Daniel noted the “penmanship was a masterpiece of excellence.” The "Old Farm Diary" covered a period from 1720 - 1744 and described matters related to the farm the Tredwells lived on. The people that wrote the diary made trips to Sag Harbor and the Hamptons on horseback. About these journeys, Daniel recorded, “The[se] trips constituted a great travel in our mind at the time and we read them over and over with the utmost delight.” The people who had previously lived in the home were the Tredwell's ancestors and this manuscript was a few generations removed from them. Daniel's father recognized the neighbors and slaves mentioned on its’ pages from stories his father shared with him. After reading through this document for years, Daniel went back to look up some facts but it was gone. No one remembered the day it disappeared it was simply not there.

One idea stayed with Daniel and his siblings from reading the “Old Farm Diary.” Daniel claimed the old manuscript “made a lasting impression on our mind and our first unfledged literary efforts were made in imitation of it, and we made a resolution early in life to write a diary of the events of our lives.” Daniel’s attempts to write a journal like the one he grew up reading started out a bit patchy but his published journal ended up being two volumes and recorded his life from 1838 to 1888 - nearly fifty years.
I have thought of so many questions since contemplating Daniel’s small library. First, I am impressed with how what we read is a real influence in our lives. I am also extremely intrigued about the “Old Farm Diary.” How could it just not be there one day? What a treasure to come with a house and was this a common practice? I know people kept records in family bibles but I had never heard of a journal of a house being kept. Reading from Daniel's journal about the way people thought, what the inventions were, and how their views changed are fascinating.
So like Daniel, I hope you would take a minute each day and write about the events and thoughts about your own life. Describe your iPhone, your favorite app, how you get to work, what you think about current events, and what interests you. When someone reads it 70 years from now they will be amazed that you could even do anything with such basic technology and find it unbelievable what you worried about in your daily life. Just as I felt when I read Daniel’s words, your words will also be riveting, as your readers discover what your life was like - they won’t be able to stop reading.