Sabbath, August 5, 2012

Posted August 5, 2012
By Clay Cerny

[On Sundays, this blog explores topics far and wide in “Sabbath.”]

History Today

One of my favorite Sunday morning activities is listening to Rick Kogan’s radio show on WGN.  Kogan is a gravelly-voiced story-teller whose guests are in the Chicago arts and entertainment scene.  Today he had two interesting gentlemen who are amateur historians with a particular focus on Bridgeport (the neighborhood that gave us both Daleys and several other mayors).  Beyond the local interest, Rick and his guests pondered this great question:  Why don’t more people care about history?

It’s not that no one cares about history.  Walk into any bookstore – the few that remain.  History is still one of the largest sections.  Many movies and TV shows are based on historical themes and characters.  The problem is that most people don’t value history for its power in helping us understand who we are and what we can be.

A big part of that problem is that we are obsessed with the future and trying to predict it.  The presidential election offers a good model of this problem.  Rather than look at the records of President Obama and Governor Romney, the press and pundits get lost in polls and the “what will happen” question.  One of my former bosses had a great saying, “Nothing predicts behavior like behavior.”  History is our record of behavior, what a person has done, and what the consequences of those actions were.  The problem is that it’s hard to think about history.  It’s easier to speculate on the “could” and “might” of the future.

History also suffers because we read less and less.  Bookstores and newspapers are closing because more Americans are turning to the short form news sources of the Internet and TV.  Don’t get me wrong.  Those media can be excellent vehicles to learn history.  I love the Civil War, and Ken Burns’ TV series helped spark my interest.  Similarly, the Library of Congress’ website brings resources to people across the globe.  However, few people access those sources or use them to shape their opinions.  We also read paragraphs and headlines rather than books.  Our knowledge of history is becoming more and more fit to a game of Trivial Pursuit, which reaches the point of absurdity in Jay Leno’s “Jaywalking” segments.

The final point that I think has diminished the power of history is our culture’s failure to think critically.  Too often, we choose a political or ideological position and cling to it with full faith.  We pluck facts to support that belief and ignore those that go against our way of thinking.  Real history (not to be confused with propaganda) is a warts and all proposition.  FDR may be the greatest American president of all time.  However, he also interned Japanese American citizens and failed to act against Hitler’s genocide.  Those are facts.  Just as it is a fact that Ronald Reagan raised taxes (several times) and gave amnesty to undocumented immigrants.

Why is this a problem?  It could be argued that people will seek the knowledge they need, which would mean history, like geography, is just another topic we no longer study or care about.  One of my friends, some I greatly respect as a thinker, says that it doesn’t matter what people study as long as they learn to be smart, critical thinkers.  While I value critical thinking, I also believe it is vital for people to have some common way of understanding the past.  We also need to look to the past as a teacher, not a model that we need to rebuild, but a guide that will help us make decisions about how we want to live now and in the future.

I don’t have a solution to this problem.  A society that watches “reality” TV is not going to devote the time needed to read David Herbert Donald’s  500 page biography of Lincoln or Jacques Barzun’s study of Western civilization.  Most people don’t have the time or focus to read or ask critical questions.  We work long hours, and it’s a relief to turn on the tube and laugh when Jay asks, “Who wrote the Declaration of Independence?” and a college graduate shrugs his shoulders and answers, “Abraham Lincoln.”  We laugh because we cannot look in the mirror.  It’s too painful.