When I was about three years old, my Dad just beamed when I was asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I would say, “A history teacher like my Dad.” In later years both my brother and I followed in his footsteps and majored in history. Intellectual history is more my brother’s bent, while I tend toward Modern American history as well as ancient history — two ends of the spectrum. When you were around my father you literally breathed history so the fact his children and a granddaughter followed in his footsteps is not surprising. He read and studied and taught history for over 40 years and made it come alive to generations of students here in Glendive.
Whenever someone says to me, “I always hated history.” I tell them, “You didn’t have the right teacher.” And it is true. If you like history I think it is because you have a respect for the discipline. History is not a dead subject, rather history is alive and all around us and it is as recent as your morning breakfast or this evening’s news.
Some years ago I ran across a directive from the Montana Office of Public Instruction that discussed the idea of dropping American history from the high school curriculum requirement list. There was a question as to how “relevant” history really was at the time. Contacting K. Ross Toole, imminent historian, author, and professor at the University of Montana, was my first action and it definitely was the right thing to do because he led the charge as to the importance of history in our society and in our personal lives.
Nearly every decision we make is the result of our personal history. Past actions are fixed in our brains and we either continue to follow the same path, do a course correction or we can become lost in a muddle of mis-placed behavior. This can happen to nations as well as people. As I get older I watch a lot of television programs with an historic flavor. The Smithsonian channel has some fantastic pieces on ancient civilizations. There are a great many programs on military history. And other channels focus on American history. On the PBS channel the other evening I saw a program on Gertrude Bell, a woman ahead of her time who was active in the politics of Iraq just after World War I as well as providing the groundwork for archeological preservation in that country. She was a fascinating woman, but as the program pointed out, one who dealt with her personal demons as well.
Studying history, theology, and philosophy are often viewed as subjects of no value in our fast paced technologically oriented society. I have a difficult enough time trying to figure out my newest version of the smartphone let alone sink back in subjects that require directed thought and concentration and opinions of men and women long dead.
But there is a craving in each human being for something deeper. That there has to be something more to this life than just living in the moment. History requires a different thought process than just immediacy. Recent political analysis on our news programs find reporters going back in our history to the presidential scandals of Reagan, Nixon, Agnew and Clinton. And back even further to try and understand the precedents for what is happening now.
When starting out a new history class each year Dad would write on the board the following quotation: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” As I listen to news and follow the progression of the issues of our time I find myself often thinking, but can’t they see this is what happened before? My brother is a deeper reader and thinker than I am and he often can help me see the patterns of history and why we need to re-read earlier histories to help us better understand our own times. Robert F. Kennedy’s name has been appearing more often of late in some analysis. I am reading a biography of RFK and discovering, as is usually the case, he was much more complicated than the public ever knew.
Who are we? Why do events sometimes seem out of control? Where do we find the roots of our behaviors and actions? Reading history, reading opinion columns, reading biographies is the key. Understand history is vital to finding our way as a people, as a nation and as a world.