FLOTSAM & JETSAM: Thinking about history

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Thinking about history

 Sam Smith – Reading Colin Woodard’s remarkable book, Union, has led me to ponder about some of the failings and successes of history in our society and what we can do about it. A few thoughts:

·        Stop shortchanging history in our schools: A 2014 study by the National Assessment of Educational Programs found that only 18% of high school student were proficient in history. Neither our schools nor our media care enough about history and we pay the price.

·        Keep reading history. Along with Woodard’s book I’ve been reading new histories on Eleanor Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. They have all reminded me of how much I don’t know about some aspects of history and how useful it is to learn more.

·        Learn from the past but don’t live it. Slavery was a terrible part of black history, but the tendency of some of today’s blacks to define their current state by it is similar to what you find in dysfunctional families where some live their life defined by their terrible childhood. The trick is to learn from the past but create a new present and future. All major change comes from rewriting the present and future – not reliving the past.

·        Use history to tell how we’re doing today. For example, we don’t talk about it, but the American inclination to solve problems by warfare has dramatically changed in the past 75 years. The number of American military deaths in the Korean, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghan wars was roughly one quarter that of WWII. The Google Book Ngram viewer shows that even the mention of war in English language books has declined by over 85% since the early 19th century. This doesn’t mean all trends are positive, witness climate change, or that you can’t have hopefully temporary retreats such as the Trump regime. But following the history of concepts such as war is as important as remembering actual events.

In short, we need to revive the importance of history in our lives and live not as its victims but as its recreators. And while we’re at it, let’s add civics and cultural studies to our to do list.