Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Why History is Like Nuclear Science

I had a fascination with history since like the third-grade.  To me, it was a fascinating open window about life, culture, events, and screw-ups.  I had an appreciation of looking over a map showing the whole 'walk' that Lewis and Clark conducted, and how they didn't have a Motel-Six to check into, or some interstate diner to provide a charming lunch.  I liked WW II stories that unfolded, where one single episode led onto a massive and epic story.  I like the mysteries left by Stonehenge and the Pyramids.

What's generally bothered me over the decades is that history is often taught by instructors, professors, and teachers....at such a level....that it's like nuclear science or geometric equations.  High schools were bad for putting out the whole structure of just memorizing twenty-two key terms....to pass the weekly quiz.  Looking back....it was amazing.  You had eight class days of forty-five minute 'mini-lectures', which all keyed on five TERMS per day, and you simply had to memorize just enough of that to get a decent grade.....then dump the data as you moved onto the next chapter.  Nothing was ever learned in such a way to make sense.

In college, occasionally you'd have some professor who would drift off from the lecture and actually lay out this great graphical vision of some event and you could visualize the approaching battle, confrontation, or big adventure.  Those occasions however, were rare.

In the 1990s, I began to notice the History Channel doing some fine pieces on history....which took you to the actual site.  They could actually run up a forty-four minute piece for a one-hour TV show which would tell you the simple story of how Chicago literally burned to the ground, or how some hurricane wiped out Galveston.

One of the great problems in history is that you need to start somewhere.  Most folks like to start their understanding of history either at the Great Depression or WW II....because things kinda fit together easily for their understanding of the story.  Frankly, it's all turned into a story-telling art.  Once someone pushes the notch back....to say WW I or Teddy Roosevelt.....you can usually tell that person is really stretching themselves to connect the dots.  Push them back another notch gold being found in California in 1848....folks start sweating.  Push them back to the Roman period, and you got a stressed-out guy.

My entire introduction to the Roman Empire....from the text books that Alabama offered up for world history around the ninth-grade......consisted of roughly three pages.  There's maybe fifteen things that the teacher could pluck test questions from, and nothing made much sense to a 14-year old kid from Alabama.  It took me around forty years to realize the massive implications of the Roman era and how so much modern history fits to what the Romans started and finished.  Telling the story?  I doubt if a quarter of all college history professors could sit there and do an adequate job over the Roman era story.

This past month, there's been a couple of episodes on German TV featuring the historian and professor Christopher Clark. The German TV crowd hired the professor to do a six-part series over German history.  They actually put the professor in a car, drove around the country.....made some great drone-type video of the landscape.....and then told a five-star story of events.  The Roman era was completely laid out and made perfect sense.  The era of the Enlightenment fell right into place.  The replacement of the Roman authority to the Catholic authority was fully explained.  The Thirty-Years War could finally be put into some understandable context.

The trouble is that we have so few Professor Clark's around, and we end up with a one-star lecture for the most part about Columbus, which tends to portray a slanted story, or some hyped-up story over a map that he MAY or MAY NOT have had in his possession.

I came to hate science in high school because it revolved around forty-four thousand science topics and ninety-nine-percent were things you'd never use.  For the past forty-odd years.....I just haven't had to deal with dinosaurs, the pollination of a bee, or classifying mammals.  I won't say it was wasted time but I just wasn't destined for some career in science, and you could have established that fact by age twelve.

History was different.....you could piece together the puzzle and make sense out of what some idiot did, or some epic moment that just accidentally worked out for no real reason.  History could explain why Ford appealed to every American as a car.  History could lay out why New Orleans was screwed-up from day one and has never recovered.  History could explain the interstate system and how it only comes after WW II and the review of the German highway system.

The bottom line?  It'd be nice if history were more simple to grasp, and maybe we are moving in that direction.  But it might be another thousand years and a ton more events to occur.....before we get to that mythical moment where it all makes perfect sense.

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