Saturday, April 26, 2014

And History for All

“To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?” (Cicero)

Ive run into a few history haters of late. Yes, they DO exist!

Someone recently said to me that ‘history is just boring. Whats the use? I live in the present, not the past.

After a few deep breaths, I got control of my outrage. How could someone say such a thing? To me its such an obviously ignorant statement.

But then I asked myself ‘What turned that person (like so many others) so completely off of history in the first place?Ill bet that anyone who hates history loves a good story, loves to watch movies set in the past, likes to hear about peoples victories, defeats, great love affairs, suffering, loss, adventures, beliefs etc. etc.  Whats not to like?

“History isn't about dates and places and wars. It's about the people who fill the spaces between them.” (Jodi Picoult, The Storyteller)

History IS about people. Its about the reasons and motivations behind all those dates, and wars, and places. And because its about people, there is always something that other people, in any age, can relate to and learn from.

I think the root of the problem for all those folks who despise history is that it was badly taught or presented. When you think about it, weve all had a bad teacher in one subject or another, history being no exception.

In high school, I had one good history teacher. The others, I dont even remember. That history teacher told us those personal anecdotes of people during the periods we were studying. He brought history to life using not only stories, but also props, movies, and artifacts.

Isnt history a record of human life as it has been played out?

“If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.” (Rudyard Kipling, The Collected Works)

Mr. Kipling hit the nail on the head there. If history were taught in an interesting way, the number of naysayers would be far less. Ive always believed that good historical fiction should be a part of every history curriculum.

Sadly, not one of my elementary, high school, or university history courses ever included historical fiction on the reading list. On the contrary, the teachers often slammed historical fiction, especially at the university level.

Big mistake! Imagine the possible classroom conversations about an historical person or topic that the students might have read about in a fascinating or gut-wrenching novel!

That would have been much better than “This general marched with his army in such and such a date to such and such a place,” or “On such and such a date, such and such a tyrant was defeated in this battle.”

Honestly, that sounds like the history of nowhere to me. Every era taught the in the same boring way, oftentimes without any passion for the subject. How are you supposed to hook your audience?

“The past is a source of knowledge, and the future is a source of hope. Love of the past implies faith in the future.”  (Stephen E. Ambrose)

I think its also important to encourage diversity of interest in various periods of history, and what better way to do that than through fiction.

Among history loverscircles, Ive also run into what can only be called ‘period snobbery.

If history is really about people, and people of the past are how we can most easily relate to history, then there is something to be learned or gained from every period of history, in every place.

“That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach.” (Aldous Huxley)

In my studies, I found something interesting in every period of history to clamp onto. Again, the common denominator of the ages is people - flawed, impassioned, messy people.

The Gods must truly be having a laugh, or a good cry, when they watch us mortals. History is an eternity of entertainment.

Its not to say that history lovers dont have their favourite periods to which they gravitate. I love the ancient and medieval worlds; these span thousands of years, so I suppose that my tastes are pretty varied.

However, I can still remember being rapt by my American history course when it came to the Civil War, or the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. I never thought industrialization could be interesting, or Regency England for that matter, until I studied them a little.

Medieval Japan? Very cool. Learning about cuneiform in Mesopotamia? Brilliant!

Another good example is movies or Television shows. Of course, I loved Gladiator, The Fall of The Roman Empire and other ancient-themed movies. I also enjoy watching The Tudors, and the BBCs Pride and Prejudice alongside I Claudius.

“If you don't know history, then you don't know anything. You are a leaf that doesn't know it is part of a tree.” (Michael Crichton)

Myth and Legend are also a part of history, a deep-rooted part of human existence.

What I find amazing and unfortunate is that there are some people who make a career for themselves out of trying to disprove what is history and culture to others.

Often Ill read a quote from one of these folks that belittles even the greatest beliefs or achievements of the ancients, be it about their gods, their rituals, their cures, and their stories.

I think history and the people of the past require and deserve a bit more respect and attention than that.

 “Fiction is written with reality and reality is written with fiction. We can write fiction because there is reality and we can write reality because there is fiction; everything we consider today to be myth and legend, our ancestors believed to be history and everything in our history includes myths and legends. Before the splendid modern-day mind was formed our cultures and civilizations were conceived in the wombs of, and born of, what we identify today as "fiction, unreality, myth, legend, fantasy, folklore, imaginations, fabrications and tall tales." And in our suddenly realized glory of all our modern-day "advancements" we somehow fail to ask ourselves the question "Who designated myths and legends as unreality? " But I ask myself this question because who decided that he was spectacular enough to stand up and say to our ancestors "You were all stupid and disillusioned and imagining things" and then why did we all decide to believe this person?” ( C. JoyBell C.)

I love this quote, and it's so true. In man's search for scientific reasoning and advancement, he has, at the same time sought to explain away so many rich aspects of our actual history.

Myths and legends ARE history. They were not mere fireside tales intended to entertain the drunken masses, or stories whose sole purpose was to lull children to sleep after suckling at their mothers' breasts.

Perhaps this is one reason that history classes today tend to be so boring for many students? If myths and legends were taught as history and not as pure fabrication that is so easily explained away, those classes would be riveting. We would be inspired by the past, and not bored by it.

If history is about people, then we would do well to try and look at things as those people did if we really want to understand them.

Hindsight can be useful when studying the past, but it can also be a poison that leads our modern minds to think we are superior to all that has gone before.

History is for all - every person, every period, every aspect has value.

“Everyone who wants to know what will happen ought to examine what has happened: everything in this world in any epoch has their replicas in antiquity.” (Niccolò Machiavelli)

Thank you for reading.

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