Stale. Dull. Old. Library books. Dead people. Boring. Useless.
"And how is history supposed to help me in my future career?"
The voice of reason in the maelstrom of the educational abyss. Or so they would lead you to believe. There are many who believe in education as job training. As preparation for a future career they are so certain about at the age of 16 they won't hear any different. Youth is so certain. Youth believes it can see the big picture and define it.
"I'm going to be a computer programmer and they want me to know who won the War of 1812?"
My first exposure to history was grammar school, as it was for most. There the focus seemed to be preparation for all the pageantry revolving around Flag Day. Then came secondary school and along came Mr. White. Everyone has probably had a Mr. White in their educational life. A three hundred year old man with a head of granite and no known facial expressions. He handed out very old text books (as I remember the date of publication for his Western Civilization text was 1948). He expected us to sit and read a chapter at a time in class and then passed out mimeograph sheets. If he noticed you weren't engrossed in his ancient offerings, a yardstick would come smacking down on your desk to wake you up. There were questions to be asked about what we read. We could even go back to the book for the answers. It was the most empty class I've ever taken, but I am reminded of it every time someone remarks about their disdain for history.
History is the summation of the whole of human experience. I did not learn this until a couple years later when I entertained another history class in high school. This time my class in American History was hosted by a woman I heard many terrible stories about. They called her Crazy Mary and talked about how little sense she made.
"She's nuts. She doesn't even know history and they made her head of the department just because she's old."
My first day in class I paid careful attention, as I always tend to do when presented with a new environment. I noticed her focus was not on the usual class syllabus or grading curve. She made it clear that the only answers she did not like were silent answers. "Even if you don't know the answer, tell me what comes to mind. I'd rather you be wrong than not speak at all. The greatest lesson of history is about mistakes."
"Why does she take points off for spelling mistakes? This is History, not English!"
The first test was taken, and came back with a variety of unusual comments. Some were annoyed that she took a point off for each spelling or grammatical error. I was more intrigued by the comments on my own test. There had been an essay question I was completely unsure of the answer to, but had answered regardless. She gave me full credit for the answer and scribbled next to the answer "Very good idea! If only they had thought of this at the time!"
A year with Crazy Mary taught me more than any other class I took in the public school system. I began to realize that she was teaching us to learn, and to extrapolate rather than sticking strictly to facts and learning by rote. Her test questions were more often about thoughts, feelings and deductions about historical people and events. At times, she would present questions such as "If you hade been there to advise him, what would you have suggested" as extra credit questions. I would never fail to answer everything, including the extra credit questions that few others dared to come near. They feared her, but by the end of the first year I came to realize that I admired and looked up to her. Being "crazy" wasn't necessarily wrong. I worked things out so I could have her for European History my senior year.
"Dude, if I could drop this class I would."
She signed my yearbook when I graduated, and eluding to a comment she made frequently in class, she wrote "Remember to get drunk on history." It was her mantra, and her lesson. Getting drunk on history means to put yourself into history, to become alive with it. If you simply comb through dates, names and events you'll put yourself to bed early every night. If you instead dig deeper, to read what caused these events, what made these people who they were... Why? How? If? Then the whole picture starts to come alive. You are standing in the middle of history right now. Just because someone else was standing in the middle of it centuries ago doesn't make them that much different than you.
There are lessons to be learned, about who we are and where we have been. How did we get this far? There is also substantial humor and entertainment. Everything connects. Everything leads to another chapter. You keep reading and following the "links" from one person's story to another's, from where one was to where the other found his niche... it is like painting a picture. A picture of you. A picture of us. And if you do it right, you will indeed feel intoxicated. A Samuel Adams or Scotch and V8 might not hurt either.
Many thanks to the wonderful and resourceful E2 user known as Ichiro2k3 for some much needed grammar maintenance here. I love my grandma, but grammar annoys me usually.