Recently, I read an article which told of a father passing along this academic and life advice to his child: "Don’t worry about history; it’s all in the past."
History’s purported impracticality remains an albatross to all its devotees, including teachers and scholars. When presented in an entertaining way, it easily trumps fiction. From an educational standpoint, history’s value can’t be overstated. So why is it such a tough sell?
The teaching of history at the secondary level has always been tagged as boring: Names, dates, events, and not much more. It wasn’t until the latter half of the 20th century when some of the more interesting analyses of undergraduate and graduate work, albeit simplified, started trickling down to high schools.
It’s difficult, however, to undo centuries of precedent and popular myth in a few generations.
History also has faltered in pop culture because of academia. Serious researchers churn out hundreds of titles each year that are barely readable by their own peers. There is so much emphasis on documentation and sources - which have their rightful place - but far less in telling a story that would interest the masses.
To be fair, academics can reach the people, and some end up as bestselling authors. British historian Sir John Keegan is a good example of a serious writer who broke the code early on in his career.
But past dollar signs, this helps us stop and capture history’s real value: It’s a reflection of the human condition. In that way, the past tells us more about ourselves than we can ever imagine.
One way is by contrast and relativity. Take slavery. Its history in this country, to include our bloodiest conflict, the Civil War, is particularly instructive on race relations to this day.
The issues surrounding race often are viewed through a prism whose lens have been refocused by time, and the actions of Americans as well as others around the world with regards to slavery. That shackles exist elsewhere, but not here, speaks largely to how much we have changed as a people. Yes, we still have a way to go. But without history, we can’t hope to know the consequences of slavery or freedom.
Some years ago, just before I taught history, a mentor of mine, Dr. Christopher Gabel, pulled me to the side with the draft of a desert map and told me the story of a key military confrontation. His terminology was modern: He spoke of Egyptian and Israeli brigade commanders maneuvering around a critical desert crossroads, searching for advantage in terrain and positioning.
As he gave an account of the battle, my mind turned to the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. When he finished, I began discussing geopolitical implications surrounding that 20th century conflict. His reply opened my eyes: "You know your history well, Telly, but you’ve forgotten where you came from."
He then dusted off a nearby tome and turned to a glossy page showing that same desert crossroads. The map’s index read: "Battle of Meggido, 15th century B.C."
In five minutes, Dr. Gabel had taught me the value of history, and why it matters that we teach it in a way that bridges the chasm to modern times. After all, as he deftly concluded, the actions of Pharaoh Thutmose III and the King of Kadesh were not all that different than those of their descendants 3,500 years later.
And since the human intellect and psychology is central to the activities of historical figures, there is also danger in its study. Revisionists will always try to spin events in a new light for personal gain, or to suit their own biases and ideologies. That’s part of the historical conundrum.
But ultimately, history isn’t all in the past; in fact, it’s around us, defines us, and helps us create more history, however mundane it might seem, every moment we take another breath. Because whatever the Pharaoh’s decision at that desert crossroads, its bottleneck presents the same challenge to the human mind today. That’s a mirror of us, and the most worthy knowledge we can have.
Telly Halkias is an award-winning freelance journalist. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org