In Defense of History

Let’s face it: everybody hates math. Most people would rather have an in-depth discussion about genital warts than even hear the word “mathematics.” Because we are outnumbered, math people have to stick together. Most of us have tried to explain math at some point, but our words fall on deaf ears, largely because mathematicians aren’t good with words. It usually sounds forced and trite, without any real bearing on reality.

Although I understand why most people never liked math, I do. In order to really explore the concept, I’d rather look at something I hate: history. What follows is my thoughts about history and how I have tried to resolve them. Keep in mind that I am not really an expert in this field, but I did what I could.

History is just names and dates.

If I just recited a list of names and dates to you, I doubt you would think I had learned any history. At its heart, history is about people and events. Anyone who fails to make the distinction has also missed the point. Some teachers treat history like a timeline, where events are just dates and people are just the names of those present. Those teachers don’t manage to teach much of anything.

If you treat history like something that is dead and gone, then you will inevitably confine it to a mental graveyard. On the other hand, if you see it as something active and ongoing, you might find a place in your life for it.

There’s no need to know history.

Really, can you describe anything that you “need to know”? Walking? Speaking? Flushing the toilet? What part of education is truly necessary? You could sit somewhere and breathe, with a feeding tube in your gut, shitting your pants, never thinking or moving, and you wouldn’t “need to know” anything.

All education is essentially optional; you do it for your own reasons. If you can’t find a reason to learn history, feel free to stay ignorant. However, if you want to be an educated person, remember that history is the context through which all other knowledge has emerged. No knowledge is independent from its historical context, no matter how objective it seems. Furthermore, history shows us the reasons why we should learn in the first place.

But history is completely useless.

“Useless” is a word with no meaning. There are many things worth knowing that you may never “need to use.” For instance, CPR, self-defense, swimming, fire safety, defensive driving, and the Heimlich maneuver are all things many people never use. Besides, if you only learn those things that are “useful,” you’ll turn out to be a real bore.

It’s cliche but true to say those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it (George Santanaya), although the cynic might argue that history repeats itself no matter what you know. In any case, there is nothing new under the sun (Solomon). Throughout the past are perfect examples of human behavior with endless applications. If you want to know how people will act, look at how they have always acted.

I just don’t get it.

History is not really a “thing,” but a complex process. No event is independent; events do not emerge out of nowhere. The names represent real people with flaws and strengths. But history is often oversimplified. Causes are reduced to broad strokes. People become stock characters with fixed behavior. The process is treated as a natural progression with a specific direction. Most significantly, it becomes something that is in the past. Again, history is not over, nor will it end any time soon.

Well, I’m just not enthusiastic about it.

Of course not. Nothing can force you to be enthusiastic about anything, because passion comes from within. Just give it a bit of a chance, but not by reading a textbook. Talk to someone who does have passion about history, or approach it from the angle of something you are passionate about. I doubt you’ll decide to become an historical expert, but if you discover an interest in history, pursue it. If not, you can always learn what you feel you need to know or want to use. If you don’t want to do that, give up on it. Just don’t pester the people who know what history really is.

More True Tales of Human Interest

These stories are both true. Neither is interesting. Sorry.

In 7th and 8th grade, I took English classes with Mrs. Lott. She had a pretty no-nonsense approach to education, but for some reason, we still had a hands-on project. Although I don’t remember which year it was or what book it was supposed to apply to, I remember the project quite clearly. We were supposed to build a house of some kind with our choice of materials. We also got to choose partners. I chose Devin.

Together, we made the decision to build a house out of sugar cubes and vanilla frosting. I can still picture the open box of (name-brand!) sugar cubes. The project began as expected, with one line of sugar cubes. After opening the frosting, we realized that it does not spread easily. We scraped it across our first line and managed started moving up. After about 2 lines of sugar bricks, we encountered another problem: shrinkage. It seems that quantities of both frosting and sugar cubes had just disappeared.

Construction is difficult on such a small scale, and it becomes more difficult when your hands are moving at the speed of sound. Although we started with 2 boxes of sugar cubes and 2 tubs of frosting, we only finished about a wall and a half. At lunch, we had heart rates in the low thousands and no interest in eating. I have never been more hyper.

During my tenure as a Boy Scout, I went to summer camp twice. The first year, the troop went to Camp Geiger in St. Joseph, Missouri. It was an interesting experience for several reasons. First, the camp is huge and hilly. Second, our troop had to camp at the lowest point, essentially in a huge ditch. Third, I had to take Vitamin B1 supplements to keep off mosquitos. Fourth, I didn’t shower the whole time. I smelled like shit due to B1, sweat, and the general stink of teenage boy. My proudest accomplishment that week was finishing the Basketry merit badge. We still have the basket.

The next year, we went to Camp Naish in Kansas City, Kansas. I had a history with Naish; my Cub Scout troop had gone there twice for day camp. Both times it rained without ceasing. As an extremely mature Boy Scout, I decided to do what they called the “Mountain Man Rendezvous.” It was a 3-day excursion to the shittiest parts of the camp to do manly things. We were expected to create our own lean-tos and sleep in the elements. For some reason, it appealed to me, in part because of the Metalworking merit badge.

After about 20 minutes of trying to create a tent with 2 tarps, twigs, and a rope, I started crying like a little bitch. I didn’t want to be there and I missed my father. Although I had never been one of “those kids” at a sleepover (I remember who was, though. Pussy.), this rendezvous was beyond the bounds of my emotional maturity. I was taken back to camp where I did normal merit badges like the other scouts. I didn’t do the metalworking, which I later found out was an extremely easy merit badge, especially at summer camp.

I think I took some crappy nature merit badges and First Aid, where I got into trouble for lighting matches (I still blame another scout for that. Asshole.). I attempted to make a second basket, which failed miserably. I wrote a terrible poem. There was also a brief panic due to a leaking propane lantern. However, the biggest problem that week was, of course, the rain. It rained like no rain has ever rained in the entire reign of rain. Camp Naish was basically just mud with a smattering of watery pits. During the first night, they had to send out a truck to pick up the mountain men. Suckers.