- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 6, 2004

On Feb. 28, 2004, historian Daniel Boorstin died. On that same day, local high school students on the TV quiz show “It’s Academic,” failed to even make a guess at the answer to a simple question about the American Civil War and Fort Sumter.

Boorstin, lawyer, head of the library of Congress for 12 years, faculty member of the University of Chicago for 25 years, wrote more than 20 books. His famous trilogy on the American experience gave us deep lessons into who we are as Americans.

Boorstin’s death, coupled simultaneously with speechless students confronted with the simplest historical question, leads one to wonder: “Why do we study history?”

History, especially American history, teaches us the values, rights and responsibilities of our citizenship. History makes us a nation: a race of people and not just a collision of different peoples from many lands. You can be born French, but when you move in from another land you don’t necessarily become French. When you move to America and become a citizen, you are embraced as an American. People come here to share in the values and rights of all Americans. Understanding who gained those rights and how they achieved them is important because those rights bind us together as a people.

Our history is “Ich bin ein Berliner,” the Boston Tea Party, Ellis Island, Gettysburg, and “I have a dream.” Our history is the Emancipation Proclamation, Bill of Rights and Constitution.

Our history is our culture. Our focus upon “Ben and Jen,” Janet Jackson, “Lord of the Rings,” is fleeting, largely meaningless debris. The liberties gained by our history allow us a free Hollywood entertainment machine. But you can’t learn history from Michael Moore and Oliver Stone.

Our history separates us from the rest of the world and, at the same time, unites us to people everywhere who long to live free in a land with rights, courts that functions and police governed by proven laws and legal precedents. Reading and learning our history teaches us to appreciate America’s place in the world.

Our history is the struggle of man, wars, sacrifices, torture, anguish and great joy and achievement. It is thrilling, heartbreaking and often amusing at the same time. The “why did that happen” and “what was gained” is often more important than the event alone. Our history teaches us men find some things worthy of their blood, their anguish, even their own death.

Our history keeps our debates honest. Is Iraq really “Another Vietnam” as so many pundits have claimed? We cannot know (and they may get away with misrepresentations) unless we understand our history. So history makes us more informed as voters, which is very good, maybe even essential, for the health of our Democracy.

Our history teaches us toughness and serenity. Through history we learn the dichotomies of man and the strange bedfellows life brings. We learn that Great Britain, George Bush’s greatest ally in Iraq, is also the nation that burned the White House and the U.S. Capitol in 1814. And yet the Republic survived. So what really did the nation have to fear on September 11, 2001? History makes us appreciate what it means to be an American.

Our history makes us read. But don’t read your kids’ history textbooks. They are often politically correct collections of fact and misinterpretation not worth reading. Understanding history, like mining, requires one to dig deep into the writings of and about great men, at least occasionally.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and many, many more stand out in our history. These men inspire us, encourage us and teach us (and our children). And it is not just the well-known headliners who cause us to work harder and live better lives.

Henry V. Plummer inspires me. A slave who escaped to enlist in the U.S. Navy, he served in many battles of the Civil War, then became a minister and served a congregation. When he read about the Buffalo Soldiers, he traveled west and became their chaplain. To find such men, you almost always have to read history.

Our American history is the thread that slowly becomes, over the years, a bond that ties us together as Americans. Our history encompasses our liberties, our values, our sense of nation.

Historian David McCullough said last year, “Something is eating away at the national memory, and a nation or a community or a people can suffer as much from the adverse effects of amnesia as can an individual.”

The state of our national understanding of history is suffering, thus causing a concomitant negative impact on our democracy. Maybe it’s time to read some history and share the joys with our children.

We study our history because it is a collection of inspiring life-lessons filled with great men who gave us the meaning of our democracy.

JOHN CAREY

Mr. Carey is a writer in Arlington, Va.

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