Wednesday, June 27, 2012

How Do You Learn History?

Big Cuter gave me a short course on the history of the world over lunch at a deli in San Francisco.

David McCullough introduced me to the founding fathers and mothers and Jay Winik took me through April, 1865. 

Anne Perry  brought me up to the brink and Dorothy Leigh Sayers explained the period after the Great War, the war to end all wars, the war that brought globalization to a new extreme.

I tried to read Gore Vidal's Burr one summer when I was young; the adults were so brazen and their behavior so outlandish that I never got past the second chapter.

I don't remember any of the history I was taught in high school. I never took a history course in college.

It took me until my 30's before I read the ancients.  Herodotus invented history, they say, and it was presented to me as such - an invention.  Were the strange and wonderful animals he describes real or were they added to make the text more accessible?  Did the events he recounts happen just that way or was his story influenced by those who were his sponsors?

"History is written by the winners," I was told, but it took Big Cuter's intersection with Howard Zinn for that phrase to have real meaning for me.  Poor kid, he went into ninth grade thinking that the USofA was absolutely wonderful; Zinn introduced him to a country of slave holders and land grabbers, robber barons and those they oppressed.  It turned him into a thoughtful young man whose politics were somewhere to the right of Atilla the Hun, where he rested, unflinchingly, until he moved to San Francisco and watched as the economic policies he'd espoused caused wrack and ruin.

As he told his father, "I changed my mind when I realized that everything I believed turned out to monumentally, disastrously wrong."

And perhaps that is the best way to learn history..... by living it.

G'ma was appalled that I didn't know where Patton fought.  "My brother fought with him in Italy!  That's not history - that is my life!"  

Living in Washington, D.C. during the Watergate hearings, when every move by Sam Ervin or any of the special prosecutors was front page news, the process became a part of me as if through osmosis.  In graduate school two years later, I was shocked that my classmates in Law and Social Work didn't know the order of events the way they knew their phone numbers.  It had been all consuming for four months; in Chicago, it was an after thought. 

I was part of an event which will be in the history books.  Errors already exist, in newspapers as prestigious as The New York Times, and, without correction, they will be incorporated into the reality of the event as it is perceived in the future.  This is vaguely disconcerting.

Then, again, as TBG has been saying of late, the only thing we know for certain about what happened is that every person there has a specific version that is true and real.  Whether there is any consistency between any two of them is another matter entirely.

So, I wonder, how do you learn history?


  1. I've always loved history; so it's something I constantly read up on. But I do have to agree history can be distorted by the winner. History is perspective though and not always fact. So when trying to learn about history, I try to read it from an American point of view and also a view from the other side. Say for example, I'm reading about the American Revolution, I've read some great books written by American authors, but I've also tried to read books from other countries. Say the perspective from a British author. It really helps one understand the big picture.

    I never, ever get tired of learning about history.

    Happy Wednesday or is it Thursday? Guess I want the week over sooner than it's coming.

    Megan xxx

  2. The big picture is what I'm seeking, Megan. I want reality to make sense and it doesn't without background. Whose background is another story....


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