History in Focus: What’s the point?
Nearly five years into this column and quite a bit longer as a history teacher, it’s obvious I believe in the importance of learning and studying history.
However, in the roiling river that is American life filled with mind-boggling technology and information overload, we are continually distracted from the pursuit of history. What’s the point in studying history? It’s a question I see in the eyes of my students every day and one I encounter in conversation with many adults.
There’s a famous ominous quote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Many a history teacher (myself included!) has invoked this fear to muscle kids into digesting and regurgitating piles of history. But this threat never jump starts a student’s motivation.
Of course, history does not repeat. There will never be another World War II, French Revolution, or another Apollo 11 moon landing (did it really happen?) Instead, history is the study of human nature. In this sense, nothing new is going on under the sun and is exactly why history is vitally important.
Sadly, many of my students (and adults) think historical events took place in a strict linear procession, a set of preordained events that automatically played out one after another. However, if we approach history through our flawed motivations the past becomes a dazzling array of possibilities at any given moment.
If we ease ourselves into the past, a liner timeline dissolves and a multitude of difficult choices and consequences appears. History is not two dimensional. Instead, history moves in a very crooked line, bending and swaying to our daily actions. A non linear approach to history can help us develop a sense of creativity about the future.
This puts a measure of weight and pressure on each one of us. The formation of our human nature creates the motivations of our hearts which, in turn, guides our actions…and this makes all the difference in the world. Now history becomes exciting and important!
The beautiful moments are when a courageous individual inspired a new vision through timeless ideals, a sense of faith, and deep conviction such as Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address, or Pope John Paul II’s visit to Poland in 1979. In Moffat County, William Tucker worked tirelessly to build up our city. Rosetta Webb spent years advocating for and finally creating a public library.
At the same time history reduces our self-pity, self-importance, and the idea we are in the midst of the absolute most critical moment in history. Every generation thinks this way. In reality, we benefited from the greatness of previous generations…and survived their sins. The future will do the same with us.
We live in the so-called “Information age” and this implies we are smarter than previous generations, but we are afraid of our human nature and believe artificial intelligence will make better decisions for us. This is a cop-out. History teaches us patience, sound judgement, strong character, and compassion are what truly build up the world.
By failing to remember the past we are slogging our way through the present, limiting our thoughts and ideas, relearning what was once known, and falling into the trap of the weakness of our human nature through ignorance. And no amount of AI coding will save us from a shadowy knowledge of our past.
On the bright side, the recent news the Museum of Northwest Colorado is under the umbrella of the City of Craig is an exciting, far-sighted, and pivotal development for our community! It is a great joy of mine to write, share, and talk with many of you about our local history and how it shapes our local culture and thinking. This column would not be possible without the museum.
At the start of 2020 our small community faces the crooked line of history, and my New Year’s resolution is to keep writing about our past in a way that helps us move towards a thoughtful and bright future. Forward!