I think that every person has defining and reaffirming moments. Moments in which a person realizes that their path they’ve chosen decidedly the path they should be on.
In the course of my life, I’ve had very few of these moments. Today my moment was spurred by HBO.
The one thing I’ve continuously felt impassioned about is the study and the knowledge of history. I believe that the study of history is as important as the study of reading, writing, arithmetic and science. Without knowledge of how things came to be this way, how can we look forward and make educated decisions? The philosopher George Santayana once said “Those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it.” I believe this whole-heartedly. Without the study of our past(s), how are we to recognize the warning signs of imperial collapse, ineffective government, tyrannical uprisings, or atrocities such as the holocaust?
I used to believe that the study of the Greeks and the Romans was the path to understanding how things came to be this way, but I have since learned to appreciate the importance of studying the pasts of all the people of the world. I have since come to appreciate the importance of learning the history of our own Independence movement before the Revolutionary War.
I once took a class on the American Revolution, and it was the first time that I actually felt a connection with that period of history. Before I had only felt intrigued and inspired by the pasts of the ancients – the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Babylonians, the Assyrians, the Celts. I suppose my interests stemmed from how these peoples began their governments, religions, social structure, EVERYTHING from scratch. They began with no guiding literature of people’s past. No tomes of history or philosophy to refer to.
But, in the 1770′s, a group of english subjects decided that the Imperial nature of the English crown was no longer performing it’s duties effectively.
From The Declaration of Independence…
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
The writing of these words was a dire undertaking. These men were english subjects, and the current punishment for treason, the actions to which they were confessing to when writing and signing such documents, was death, typically by being drawn and quartered. There is no more cruel and unusual punishment than drawn and quartering. Gruesome death, that one.
The passionate belief of these men, these men who drew upon the democratic and republican traditions of Greece and Rome, the enlightenment philosophers such as John Locke, that eventually formed the basis of the government we have come to rely on wasn’t just an upstart group of codgers. These men were staking their lives, the lives of their families, their children, their wives, and the lives of their families that still resided in England, on the ideal that a more fair and more representative government, held accountable by the people, was worth death.
I was watching the “John Adams” series on HBO this morning, the first episode, when the leaders of the colonies were meeting in what we now call “Independence Hall” in Philadelphia, and these men, these passionate men, who believe with all of their hearts that they must depart from the British in order to secure a more better life for posterity, their words moved me to teary eyes.
I have stood in that hall – I have looked upon the walls that contained such revolutionary ideas and men. And while hearing these words spoken in great portrayals, it dawns on me why exactly I want to teach history to the youth of America.
While in school, the most boring subject to me was American history. The concentration of the dates of battles, the dates that all those men signed the Declaration of Independence, the dates that John Adams was in France…those things are drab. Dates are always available to reference quickly. General timelines are important in order to understand the course of events and the course of ideology that lead to revolution, to war, to new governments. The words of the men who began such a noble cause are important, the reasoning is more important than the simple memorization of dates and names.
The dismal approach to history in our public schools today is a mockery of the study of the past. Real understanding of how things came to be this way comes in understanding the social, political and economical reasons and consequences of great movements in history. Not in the one-dimensional memorization of the date of the “shot heard round the world.” That knowledge should fall in line with greater understand of the “big picture”, and should not be the focus of study.
So, I have reaffirmed my desire to share the history of our past(s) with youth, even if it is only my offspring that I am able to share it with.