Van Ens: Work toward a cure for historical amnesia (column)
A friend and I share a love for history and a passion for stamp collecting. He took a Mississippi River cruise that stopped at Civil War battlefields. During a Q-and-A session, a tourist asked the National Park Ranger, “Why were so many Civil War battles fought in National Parks?”
This questioner suffers from a cultural malady: historical amnesia, a forgetfulness of what the past teaches us.
In his recent book, “The American Spirit,” (Simon & Schuster 2017), historian David McCullough shares a collection of speeches on why history inspires readers. “We are raising a generation of young Americans who are by and large historically illiterate,” he laments.
In his latest book, McCullough tells of meeting a Missouri college student who was grateful for his campus lecture. “Until now, I never understood that the original 13 colonies were all on the East Coast,” she declared. Struck by historical amnesia, another student asked McCullough, biographer of presidents, “Aside from Harry Truman (1884-1972) and John Adams (1735-1826), how many other presidents have you interviewed?”
Lack of historical imagination and gullibility to factual inaccuracies afflict many citizens. We have forgotten formative principles that shaped our nation’s founding.
Thomas Jefferson fed his mind by scheduling ample time for reading history. After practicing law, he later in life advised law students to set aside time in each day to concentrate on history. Read “… from noon to 1 p.m., politics,” he wrote, “with the balance of the afternoon devoted to history, ancient through modern …” (“Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty,” John B. Boles, Basic Books, p. 20, 2017).
Learning from history saves us from living narrow lives confined to contemporary moments. Learn from past mistakes. Be inspired by achievements that occurred long ago. Jefferson realized that “to remember” is a dominant biblical theme. “Remember the days of old. Consider the years of many generations. Ask your father, and he will show you; your elders, and they will tell you.” (Deuteronomy 32:7)
In period costume, I visit classrooms dressed as Thomas Jefferson, teaching history through stories. Historian McCullough is sold on a good story’s effect on listeners. He improvises on E. M. Forster’s observation: “If I say to you the king died and then the queen died, that’s a sequence of events. If I say the king died and the queen died of grief, that’s a story.”
“Living outside Philadelphia during the 1976 Bicentennial Year, I wore my Jefferson colonial costume for the first time,” I tell students. A high school class looked blankly at the word “bicentennial.” Many gave wrong answers to this word’s meaning. Then a student’s hand shot up. “Is it connected with the University of Colorado’s athletic mascot?” he asked, proudly knowing that “another name for buffalo is bison.” Maybe a “bicentennial” is a pep rally.
Skipping historical study arouses needless arguments. This past Fourth of July, National Public Radio repeated a 29-year, on-air tradition. It tweeted the Declaration of Independence, line by line. Jefferson wrote how dictator King George III had robbed colonials of their God-given rights. “He (King George III) has obstructed the administration of justice, by refusing his assent to laws for establishing judiciary powers,” reads the Declaration.
Then Jefferson wrote, “A Prince (referring to King George III) whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.”
Some Twitter users chastised NPR, accusing this radio network of pushing a political agenda that slams our current president. Some listeners stumbled into an historical dark hole. They confused the Declaration’s King George III with today’s occupant of the White House.
Let us show diligence by reading and studying history. “The longer you look back, the farther you can see forward,” declared Winston Churchill. Except when historical amnesia sets in, blinding us to how historical moments influence what’s happening now and in the future.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.