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Tuesday, May 8, 2012
History is Gr8…But Not 2 Much
I lament that many people don’t have an appreciation for history. When friends and family visit me in the Washington, D.C. area, they rarely want to tour the many historical places around town. The fashion enthusiasts would rather clothes shop in our world class malls while the athletically inclined prefer to jog on nearby trails converted from an old railroad.
However, my idea of a perfect day is sitting in the stacks of a library paging through history books or looking through old boxes of documents and letters. Like a detective, I’m on the hunt for priceless nuggets of information. What were people’s lives like? What troubles did they face and how did they overcome them? I assumed (big mistake) that everyone was equally interested in history and its lessons.
A few years ago my teenaged niece visited. Doing my duty as aunt extraordinaire, I showed her around area museums and monuments while feeding her tidbits of historical facts. I also made sure she saw important documents like the Declaration of Independence. She was a trooper but seemed bored. Then we visited the Jefferson Memorial. Suddenly she perked up and said, “I’m SO excited. I’ve seen that place on TV. ” She texted one friend (the real sign she was interested) and called another. My heart thrilled that a young person suddenly realized the value of learning and celebrating history. And wasn’t I a wonderful aunt to introduce her to it? With tears in my eyes, I asked the question, “What television program had the Jefferson Memorial in it?” I expected her to say a PBS special or another educational program. Instead, she replied, “The Simpsons!” I rapidly deflated. A cartoon family was now the main purveyor of history? Who knew?
Apparently, quite a few people realized this. After I told a friend in England my tale of woe she said, “God bless the Simpsons! If it weren’t for them, my kids wouldn’t know anything about history.” Then and there I vowed that from now on anyone visiting would learn and memorize historical facts to pass down through the ages. I wouldn’t let The Simpsons be the equivalent of a historical textbook for future generations. I spread the word about my intention. To my surprise, not one (zip, zero, zilch) out-of-town person of any age visited for an entire year.
With plenty of downtime, I turned to reading historical mysteries. Some were excellent, blending history with mystery, action and romance. Others, sadly, ruined a good story with too many historical facts. One book read in part like it was copied from an encyclopedia with numerous dates and detailed descriptions. Gulp! Was this what my tours were like--information overload without memorable content? Even worse, do I focus on dry facts instead of people and relatable events in my historical stories? After all, what I enjoy most about history is learning how the people coped with their circumstances and what led to their decisions that perhaps still affect us.
Recently, I was given a second chance when my youngest niece visited. Instead of taking her on a forced march through the historical sites of D.C., I focused on one local church where George Washington had been a member. She was able see the tree where Washington tied his horse in the 1700s as well as touch items in the church dating from the Civil War. After our tour she told me that she would enjoy learning about history if it was like this. Possibly seeing the gleam in my eye she hastily added, “But not too much.”
How do the young people in your life learn about history or do they even care? Or, do they (gasp) view all adults as “living history” and having ridden dinosaurs to school?