Ever since I was a young boy I have been fascinated and drawn to the study of history. This article is some random thoughts on the importance of studying history.
My earliest recollection of my interest in the subject is the talks I had with my Dad concerning WWII and The Korean War. I was probably about 8 or 9 years old so the time frame was around 1959. We used to discuss some of the important personages involved in those conflicts, Hitler, Eisenhower and General MacArthur for example. My Dad was too young to be in WWII and was deferred from Korea due to my birth in 1951 as back then they didn’t draft you if you had a family. Still, he was well versed in the history of those times and this led to my curiosity of those momentous events. In particular I remember his telling me about MacArthur’s desire to carry the Korean conflict across The Yalu River to confront the Chinese directly.
I can’t recall when I started learning history in school, whether it was in Elementary school or Jr. High. Regardless of when it began the seed of curiosity was firmly planted and as time went on History classes were always my favorite ones. I do remember that I spent a lot of time reading books from the library that dealt primarily with the military and the weaponry possessed by America at the time. You must understand that this period was the Cold War era and was punctuated by events such as The Bay of Pigs, The Cuban Missile Crisis and the like. It was a scary time living with the threat of atomic bombs and the creation of fallout shelters..
My desire to learn history was also driven by some of the movies I saw as a kid. Movies like Bridge Over the River Kwai fed my interest in the recent past while ones like Spartacus opened my mind to the distant past. It was during this time that I read about Heinrich Schliemann and his exploits looking for Troy. Thus began my journey to learn how mankind has come to be what it is.
High School history was confined in the main to learning American history out of a text book; names and dates driven drivel with little or no exploring the why. This approach is what I feel is one of the reasons that kids are bored with learning history. Fortunately when I reached my senior year I was allowed to start taking elective classes. Two of them stand out in my memory. One of them was an advanced American history class where the emphasis was focused on the causes….no text book in this class. One of the sources we used was Arthur Schlesinger’s Rendezvous With Destiny. The other class led by my favorite teacher of all time, Jonas Segal, was History of Western Thought. There I was introduced to the ancient Greek philosophers such as Heraclitus, Anaxagoras and of course Socrates/Plato/Aristotle.
Wayne State University in Detroit, MI. my Alma Mater where I spent 5 years garnering 3 years worth of credit. Partially because I only went part time for the last couple of years and partly because I enjoyed too well the hearts and pinochle games with my comrades in books and consequently missed a few too many classes. Not quite on track for that PhD. This was a time of great discoveries for me in a number of ways not the least of which was beginning to see things differently from my Sunday School upbringing. It was in my Freshman year that I was introduced to ancient history. The class was taught by one of the most entertaining and informative teachers I ever had, Dr. Milton Covensky. The class text was a book called ‘The Ancient Near East Tradition’ and was written by, yeah you guessed it, Professor Covensky. He didn’t just teach the history of the Tigris-Euphrates and Nile Rivers, he breathed it. He would be bouncing around from one end of the front of the classroom to the other exclaiming something or other when he would stop and say, ‘Oh this is important write this down word for word.’ The man was a joy.
Another major foray into the unknown was a class on Greek Mythology, a large lecture hall class led by a professor who we dubbed Zeus. As this was a large lecture we also had small classes or lab. Mine was led the assistant prof, Tom. Now Zeus and Tom were not that much older than me and we developed a rapport not only scholastically but socially as well. A little time period context I think is in order here. The early 1970’s as most of you are probably aware were years of tremendous social and global upheavals and for me a lot of changes. Anyway, I used to party with Zeus and Tom, indeed that time period is best seen through a smoky haze if you know what I mean. But I digress, after completing the required classes, I went full tilt into history. I was taking anthropology, geology, and even an advanced class learning Ancient Greek. The last class I took before dropping out was a high level class on life in ancient Greece and Rome. If I had actually matriculated it would have been with a Major in Classical Civilization and a Minor in Anthropology. Alas, I have remained an amateur.
Thus ended my formal education. In the years since that time I have done a lot of reading about history. My desire to learn about mankind’s past has not dissipated as I have gotten older. In fact it has probably grown along with me. My views on history, however, have changed. In my youth I was inundated with the thoughts and ideas of a Judeo-Christian tradition which colored my views of the world. A Biblical world view if you will. A literal interpretation of the stories told in the Old Testament, the idea that Manifest Destiny was God’s Will for America, that our Founding Fathers were upright Christians; and so on, this mindset was gradually being chipped away as when a river slowly erodes away the narrow valley walls and broadens the channel.
Going to skip ahead to my present day mindset as the previous 30 years was mostly taken up with raising a family and putting food on the table and while I was still an avid reader I was still wrestling with man’s place, indeed God’s place in the cosmos. What I have become in my 60’s is basically a cynic. A cynic regarding big business, a cynic regarding American government, a cynic regarding mankind’s ability to live together in peace, a cynic regarding religion, a bonafide, card carrying cynic.
I am a firm believer in the tenet expressed below to wit; history does repeat as mankind does it’s best to ignore any lessons learned. I know the source isn’t what you would call scientific but I like this quote from The Princess Bride, “You fell victim to one of the classic blunders – The most famous of which is “never get involved in a land war in Asia” How many times has that nugget of advice been ignored?
So what does all any of this mean, boys and girls? What is so blasted important about history? My cynical mind screams ‘just look around and see the shape of the world we live in’. The effects of our past are made manifest daily in the here and now. This is why I feel that the study of history is important as long as it is taught without bias. Learning American history through the mindset of ‘Manifest Destiny’ doesn’t qualify. In the end, I’m afraid, we’re probably doomed to repeat the same mistakes. Mankind has always shown the ability to justify nefarious deeds, indeed there has rarely been any reluctance to do otherwise and I suspect that will continue. The ‘powers that be’, the moneyed interests who exist behind those who rule wouldn’t have it any other way.
Told you I was a cynic. 🙂