History and Knowing Who We Are

The late and great historian, and Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin, said that trying to plan for the future without a sense of the past is like trying to plant cut flowers. It is critically important that we not cut our roots so to speak, and never learn to grow where we are. Unfortunately, you would think modern textbooks are written and published to kill any interest anyone would ever have in history! Most are dreary works, written by committee, often hilariously politically correct. Teachers too often have degrees in education but haven’t mastered the subject of history or any other. Moreover, if they don’t share a love of the subject, it is hard for students to catch that love. So as with many things, the simple antidote begins at home. Those of you who are parents and grandparents really should be taking children to historic sights, talking about those books in biography and history that you enjoyed, and about those characters in history that mean something to you. Talk about what it was like growing up “in the olden days,” and children will pick up amazing amounts of information. More critically, they will develop empathy for those who lived before, and they will start to create impressions in mind and a sense of context they’ll need to integrate further knowledge. The secret to teaching history and making it exciting is telling stories. Properly understood, history is a grand narrative—the story of man, literally his story.

By learning the history of our parents and grandparents, history comes alive, as it should. Consider that nothing ever really happened in the past, because nobody lived in the past. Jefferson, Adams, Washington weren’t standing around saying, “Isn’t it fascinating, living in the past?” No, they lived in the present the same as you or I. The difference was it was their present. And just as we don’t know how things are going to turn out for us, they didn’t either. And nothing ever had to happen the way it did. History could have gone off in any number of different directions in any number of different ways at any point along the way, just as your own life can. You never know. One thing leads to another. Nothing happens in a vacuum. Actions have consequences. It all sounds so self-evident, but it isn’t—especially to a young person trying to understand life. That’s what I mean by developing historical empathy, which has everything to do with today and so-called “relevant” topics. It is easy to stand on a mountaintop as an historian and find fault with people for why they did this or didn’t do that, because we’re not involved in it, we’re not inside it, we’re not confronting what we don’t know—as everyone who preceded us always was.

There never was a truly self-made man or self-made woman either. Family, friends, rivals, and competitors—they’ve all shaped us. And so too have people we’ve never met, never known, because they lived long before us. They shaped us too—the people who composed the symphonies that move us; the painters, poets and authors who have written the great literature in our language. The laws we live by, the freedoms we enjoy, and the institutions we sometimes take for granted, are all the work of other people who went before us. Ingratitude is a shabby failing, and no less shabby born of ignorance. How can we not want to know about the people who have made it possible for us to live as we live, to have the freedoms we have, to be citizens of the greatest country of all time? It’s not just a birthright. It is something others have struggled for, strived for, often suffered for, were often defeated for and died for—for us: Posterity and our generation. If it sounds like ancestor worship, it isn’t. A bit of veneration, you bet.

Yet my celebration is tempered knowing full well those who wrote the Declaration of Independence that hot and fateful summer of 1776, weren’t superhuman. Every one of the Founding Fathers had his flaws, his failings and weaknesses. Some ardently disliked others among them, and every one did things in his life he regretted. But the central fact is they could and did rise to the occasion, these imperfect human beings. After all, we are not known only by our failings, by our weaknesses, by our sins (thank God). We are known by being capable of rising to the occasion and exhibiting, not just a sense of direction, but inspiration and incredible strength. The Greeks said that character is destiny, and history has confirmed that for me concerning both men and nations. Almost none of the other nations of the world know when they were born, but we do—we know exactly when we began and why we began and who did it. There’s a line in a letter by John Adams to his wife Abigail that illustrates that special measure of character and destiny we are heir to. Writing home to his wife, he paraphrases a line out of the play Cato: “We can’t guarantee success in this war, but we can do something better. We can deserve it.” Now think how different that is from the attitude common today, when all that matters is success, being number one, getting ahead, getting to the top—however you betray or gouge or claw is immaterial. That line Adams wrote is saying that however the Revolutionary War turns out is in the hands of God. We can’t control that, but we can control how we behave; and we can deserve success. May we always listen to the past and deserve our success, as fully as the Founders deserved theirs.