Tuesday, October 21, 2014


As a schoolboy, I both loved and hated history.  I loved to read the lengthy historical novels that were popular in the 40's and 50's.  I read and loved westerns, especially those that were informative about the great Indian chiefs, the soldiers and the gunfighters.  I read historical articles in my parents' Funk and Wagnall's Encyclopedia.  My head was full of stories about the men and women who made history.

But history as taught in school was usually a bore, both to me and (it seemed) to those who taught it.  My elementary school teachers seemed to be teaching the subject simply because they were required to.  Their main concerns were dates and names and it seems, with stifling any interest we might have.

High school was no better.  Mrs. E., my World History teacher managed to completely shut us off while she rambled through moralistic lessons.  Mr. Mc____, affectionately known as Chrome-dome, taught American History to supplement his job as assistant coach.  We were never allowed to open our books in his class, or to dispute - even question - his "facts".  I got my first C grade from him.  (I, Uni, on the other hand, never opened my book and took notes on all Mr. Chrome-dome said and got A's in the class.)

All of these teachers painted rosy pictures of America.  They required us to accept all they said as true and simply regurgitate their "facts" on our exams.  To one who read and studied history out of love for it, this was disgusting.

I strongly suspect that the disinterest and even distain that many have for history goes back to experiences similar to mine.  I agree with Walter Cronkite's words in his biography, A Reporter's Life:

          "Most depressing was the way history was taught.  I was not lucky enough in either high school or college to have a teacher who seemed willing, or perhaps able, to portray the conflict of fascinating personalities that underlies nearly all the critical moments of human experience.  Reducing this great drama to the rote of names, dates and places ought to be treated as a punishable crime.  Let the tens of thousands of students who get their diplomas thinking that history was the dullest subject of their high school years be called as witnesses as we put the offending teachers in the dock."  (page 28)

My bookshelves are lined with volumes and volumes of history and biography.  I would rather curl up with one of these than a novel or any of those self-help, "spiritual life" books.  I believe that a knowledge of history is a necessity for navigating and thinking through issues that confront us in our present world.

And yet there are tendencies - even political movements - all over America to maintain the present status quo.  The purpose for teaching American (and other) history is felt by many to be the inculcation of patriotism by stressing the good accomplishments of America and ignoring or de-emphasizing those areas of our history that could bring us into disrepute.

According to a recent Reuters report, October 2, 2014, "The question of how U.S. teens learn history in public schools is the latest flash point in a liberal - conservative fight over national curricula ..."  The article (along with many others) points out that critics of "the revised guidelines for the Advanced Placement history course" claim that these guidelines "cast the United States in a harsh light."

It seems that critical thinking is anathema to these conservative critics!  They apparently never understood the sarcasm in Bob Dylan's words, "Oh the history books tell it; they tell it so well ... "

Our nation is a long standing democracy and we have enjoyed freedoms here that are rare in this fallen world.  Yet we are a nation of fallen people and our history shows it when faced honestly.  The slavery and degradation of African peoples, the near genocide of the Native American peoples, our land-grabbing from Mexico, to name a few.  And our mistreatment of these same peoples right up to the present day.

Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann has claimed that, "Once we were here we were all the same" (We never were!) "... We know there was slavery that was still tolerated when the nation began ... We also know that the ... founders ... worked tirelessly until slavery was no more."  Uni and I discussed this statement.  Uni was of the opinion that Bachmann was just an out and out liar, while I could not be that judgmental.  No one who really wanted to deceive the American people would make statements that any 6th grader should be able to refute.  I felt Bachmann was just incredibly ignorant of history as are many Americans.  The problem however is that her audience is quite probably just as ignorant!

Our knowledge or ignorance of history affects how we think and act in other areas.  I know that not everyone has the love for history that I do.  But I do believe that as Christians and as Americans we are obligated to have a working knowledge of the past so that we can avoid its sins and mistakes and so that we can evaluate our present situation in its historical context.

Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it."
- attributed to George Santayana (and others)

1 comment:

John Kulp said...

Thanks for the thought provoking post Bill. I still remember the first history teacher (7th grade) who started the class by telling us that American history wasn't as pristine and pure as we may have been led to believe, and that we would be looking at it honestly with both good and bad in his class. He captured my attention. Today we seem to be living in an America where opinions precede and take precedence over facts. From science to history more people than ever seem to only see the world through the filter of their preconceptions, through a lens that filters out everything that doesn't match the positions they are committed to. It's easier because the internet and "designer news" now provide a variety of pre-filtered "facts" to validate any preconception. It brings a warped context, and unfiltered authentic context is essential to critical thinking.

Decades ago, when I first learned inductive bible study, my mentor suggested that I purchase 5 books; a good literal bible translation, a good exhaustive concordance, a good bible dictionary, a good commentary (to be used only after I completed my own study) and a good secular Ancient World History textbook. I asked "why a secular world history book?" The answer - "context".