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.