Tuesday, September 30th, 2008
When it came to history, I was an “A” student from grade school through college. But I really didn’t gain much knowledge. Dates, treaties, political figures stayed with me long enough for testing then slowly evaporated.
Since then, I’ve read many histories and even more historical novels (which send me running to the Internet for historical confirmations). I’ve come to the conclusion that my formal education in history was largely a waste of time: we were taught for easy testing not for real understanding the powers at play during any historical era. I suspect the situation has not improved with today’s even stronger emphasis on test scores.
That is just a terrible shame. With no knowledge of the complexities shaping our past it’s practically impossible to truly understand what’s going on now.
For example, take our Pilgrims. From school days you might recall the Mayflower Pact, Plymouth Rock, hardship, Thanksgiving, and maybe even Squanto and corn. That’s probably about it. Too bad. The true story of the Pilgrims as revealed in Nathaniel Philbrick’s fascinating book, Mayflower, is disturbing as well as inspiring. Just making the Mayflower voyage happen is an adventure in itself. Squanto becomes merely one native player among a dizzying number of tribes the Pilgrims both need and fear. Pilgrim leaders are sometimes heroic, sometimes foolish, and sometimes outright cruel. Philbrick’s fully fleshed out history gives you a better understanding not just of the 50 or so years it covers, but of American history since then.
His Excellency: George Washington by Joseph J. Ellis brings amazing revelations as well. Did you know that Washington virtually started the so-called French-Indian War by himself? He certainly had no winning record before he was chosen to lead our Revolutionary armies. It’s just incredible to learn about the real man behind the legendary (and not true) wooden choppers. He had the charisma of a rock star wrapped up in the dignity of a… well, President.
Of course, when it comes to world history, most of us had zero exposure to anything that didn’t happen in the Middle East or Europe. Fortunately, there’s an easy and even fun way to take care of that, thanks to Larry Gonick. His Cartoon History of the Universe 1, 2, and III (I don’t know why the change from Arabic to Roman numerals) literally covers everything from the Big Bang onward, including historic events on every continent. Written with wit and humor, you gain a true world-view that gives you a much better understanding of today’s complexities and conflicts. If you don’t want to go back to the beginning, at least try Gonick’s The Cartoon History of the Modern World Part 1: From Columbus to the U. S. Constitution. It puts American history in context with what is going on in the rest of the world. I bet your high school teacher never did that! And, it’s a real eye opener. Frankly, I would like to see Gonick’s comic books used as basic high school history texts, and have students supplement his work with research of their own. His extensive bibliographies provide ample starting points.
George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I would say it’s not enough to just remember the date something happened. It’s the “why” that really matters. That’s why we need authors like Philbrick, Ellis, Gonick and more to fill in the mighty chasms our history teachers left in our education.