Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Awareness of Our Past

Lest We Forget
Last week's post examined "What Makes America Great?" with the focus on our Constitution and the unique form of government our founding fathers created.  This week's post emphasizes the importance of the continuing need for Americans to know our history.  I have written in this blog just how difficult it is to interest young people in the importance of history, given their tendency to think that anything that happened a few years before they were born is ancient history and probably not worth knowing.

I just read a wonderful collection of speeches given at several universities by David McCullough in a book titled The American Spirit, Who We Are and What We Stand For.   One of those speeches, titled "Knowing Who We Are" given in 2005 speaks directly to the importance of knowing our past history.  McCullough writes:  "And it seems to me that one of the truths about history that needs to be made clear to a student or to a reader is that nothing ever had to happen the way it happened.  History could have gone off in any number of different directions in any number of different ways at almost any point...  Actions have consequences.  These observations all sound self-evident.  But they're not--and particularly to a young person trying to understand life."

Visiting Historic Sites
McCullough offers several suggestions for making history more accessible to students, starting with doing a better job of making sure our teachers know history so that they can tell the stories of history in a more exciting way than by sticking closely to the dullness of textbooks.  His further suggestions for improved teaching of history include improving textbooks so that they are not so dreary, avoiding content that reads as if done by committee, and expanding the teaching of history to young children when they have a particularly facile ability to learn.  Beyond the classroom, encouraging parents to take children to historic sites, and to share with their children history and biography books they particularly enjoyed.  McCullough also urges parents to talk with their children "about what it was like when they were growing up in the olden days.  Children, particularly young children, love this." 

The last suggestion I referenced above had a particular resonance with me.  Recently, my husband and I were having a wonderful dinner with friends.  The father began sharing an interesting memory about his grandmother's brave immigration to America just in time to escape the Russian Revolution.  His story was filled with details that held the interest of everyone at the table.

Sharing ancestral history, in this case, my father's grade school
When he had finished, my husband spoke directly to the man's college-age children, urging them to find a way to record these family conversations, and urging them not to  delay too long.  Holidays are a perfect time to spend an evening with family, listening to and recording these wonderful  stories.  My husband asked if they had heard the stories their father had just shared, and when they replied that they had not, he emphasized that if these family stories were neglected, once their father was gone, the stories would be lost forever.  "If you wait too late," he warned them, "you would no longer be able to ask your dad to repeat them, would you?"

"No," both young people admitted, but the man's son added, "But, I could look the Russian Revolution up on my phone," pulling his phone out of his pocket.

Learning how choices make a difference
I confess.  These are good friends, and we are fond of their kids, but his flippant reply annoyed me, and I blurted out, "That sounds exactly like the smart-aleck reply a young man would make."  I probably should not have been so outspoken, and while I tried to make it a bit of a joke, I meant it.

Fortunately, our friendship is close enough that my comment did not end the discussion with hurt feelings, and everyone recognized the difference between imagining an ancestor in a historical moment and reading online a summary about immigrants leaving Russia for America.  It also sunk home with the young man that had his great-grandmother waited too late to leave, his ancestral line would have been interrupted and he would almost certainly not have been born.  That was a real opportunity for our young friend to recognize, as McCullough said, "that nothing ever had to happen the way it happened" in history.

To emphasize how stories can bring history alive, McCullough references E. M. Forster's definition:  "If I say to you the king died and then the queen died, that's a sequence of events.  If I say the king died and the queen died of grief, that's a story.  That's human.  That calls for empathy on the part of the teller of the story and of the reader or listener to the story."  Historian Barbara Tuchman understood that the secret to teaching history is simple:  "Tell stories."

Sharing my own  stories with high school graduates
American history is filled with compelling stories--exciting, tragic, triumphant--but we tend to teach them sequentially, like marking off years on an empty calendar, with the stories reduced to dates.  The more that family history is shared in stories the better their children will place themselves within historic events, and the more that teachers bring history to life with stories and biographies the more interesting and memorable history can be.

Our own lives, like the life of my young friend whose great-grandmother fled Russia, were shaped by our family history.  Collectively, our nation's past shaped the America in which we now live. How can we truly understand and appreciate what those generations before us did to shape this nation and give us the freedoms we enjoy if we are ignorant of our past? And, how can we recognize our own responsibilities if we ignore that inheritance from them?  As McCullough says:  "...we should never take for granted...all the work of others who went before us.  And to be indifferent to that isn't just to be ignorant, it's to be rude.  And ingratitude is a shabby failing."

Happy Holidays to all of you who have supported this blog.  Perhaps, if you gather with family during the holidays, you may find time to share family stories and create an awareness for the youngsters listening of their family's personal history and how the events and choices made by their ancestors brought them into existence.  As McCullough reminds us, nothing had to happen just the way it did.

1 comment:

The Blog Fodder said...

There are many things I wish I had asked my paternal grandfather. Fortunately, my cousin lived in the same city and did have the opportunity to talk to him so all was not lost. I talk to so many people whose parents or grandparents immigrated to Canada and they have no idea about where they were from, the name of the village, nothing. How can people be so uncurious?