Why We Don’t Learn History

Now that I am nearing full retirement I have some time to devote to one of my favorite topics: history.  I’ve taught high school the last few years and sadly realized the vast majority of teenage kids haven’t he foggiest idea what role this country plays in the world, how we got where we are, the struggles we’ve endured as a nation.  Nor have they any idea of the mess we’re leaving for them to clean up.

For the 15-18 year old group it’s all about their cell phone and where their next bag of chips is coming from.  What’s frightening is how little they know and how much less they care.  I’ll harp on the student apathy theme a bit more later.  There’s lots to be said on that and the problems it portends for the future.   Most students in this age group have not the foggiest idea when things like the Civil War took place.  World War I, World War II – who, what, when, where, why….no idea….none what-so-ever.

Here I want to talk a bit about the discussions I’ve had with my students about different aspects of history.  Since I taught french and german naturally most of that history was european and our involvement in it.  Furthermore, since I lived in Europe and saw a good deal of this first hand I have a unique  perspective that most Americans can only dream of.

I do admire those historians who go into great detail about small things such as what brand of scotch Churchill drank at the White House.  The litmus test is: what bearing did it have on the outcome?  I venture to say that the outcome of World War II didn’t have a damn

Wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill Recently voted greatest  Briton of all time.

Wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill
Recently voted greatest Briton of all time.

thing to do with whether Winston preferred Dewars, Johnnie Walker or Cutty Sark…..so who cares?  For a guy who smoked and drank like he did, he functioned remarkably under the influence.  He was half American.  His mother was an American born in Brooklyn.

One funny story:  In the military every time you arrive at a new assignment it’s customary to have a “meet and greet” with the new boss.  When I first arrived in Washington -August 1984- it was with a Navy Captain (same rank as Colonel in Army or Air Force).  

So I spent 15 minutes with him.  He spent 13 of those 15 minutes telling me how

"I gotta get off this horse. My butt is killing me"

“I gotta get off this horse. My butt is killing me”

Napoleon lost the battle of Waterloo because he was obsessed with a severe case of hemorrhoids.  All the while I’m thinking, “What the hell does this have to do with my work here?”  He turned out to be a real idiot and they got rid of him pretty quick.

Waterloo, in Belgium, you’ll remember was the final battle fought, and lost, by Napoleon Bonaparte, French Emperor in June 1815.  After that he was exiled for a second and final time to the isle of St Helena in the South Atlantic where he died in May 1821.

So when we hear such political luminaries as former South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint say he wants to make health care “Obama’s Waterloo” he’s saying he wants to defeat Obama so decisively on this issue that the President will never get anything through the Congress ever again.   DeMint, you’ll notice, is no longer a Senator.  He pulled a Sarah Palin.

Follow the money

Follow the money

Cut and run.  He quit the office to which he was elected before his term was up because there was another, much more lucrative, position awaiting him outside public service in the private sector.  He is now head of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank, reputedly enjoying a seven-figure salary.   That’s a nice bump up from the $174,000 Senators are paid.

Reading and other sources of information

One of the benefits of  teaching is summers off. This offers ample time to indulge in spending time with your favorite books.  I’m trying to get used to those e-readers and they do have their advantages.  There is still something I like about flipping pages and little notes in the margins and the like.

This past summer I read a wonderful biography of Robert E. Lee. Followed by the Chris Matthews’ book on Jack Kennedy; and am now working my way through the Barbara

Best recent book on JFK

Best recent book on JFK

Tuchman tome the Guns of August which is about the beginning of the First World War which began a century ago this year – – yes it was summer 1914 when that Sarajevo shooting sparked the First World War.

The vast majority of the public though never reads…at least nothing beyond what’s on sale at Walmart this week….or maybe the TV Guide.  Reading is something that puts you into a different time and place and tries to answer the question: “What was it like?”  I like reading either for the story-telling effect or just for the purpose of obtaining information such as how to assemble something.

Television has some good stuff.  Lots of it is repetitious.  I’m sort of a current events junkie and have been for quite a while.  I can watch CNN and MS-NBC all day long.  Fox, I’m sorry, makes me puke.  The History and Military channels have some good stuff…but again lots of repetition.   Sometimes I wish they’d get narrators who can properly pronounce the names of people and places….but 99% of the viewers don’t know any better, so they don’t care.  The producers of those programs make an honest effort to inform the viewers and make it relevant so I applaud their efforts.  They know that many people simply won’t read books…so if they don’t get it on TV, then the viewers don’t get it at all.   So is TV optimal? No.  Better than nothing?  Yes.

Now, as for the internet….we all know that Wikipedia is not an authoritative source. Because anyone can contribute, those contributions can be wrong.  But…on balance I’ve found information on there to be a lot more right than wrong.  So I appreciate the people who keep that alive as a current source of modern history.   The rest of it is just someone’s opinion.