Don't Know Much 'bout History

by Steve Mason

We make some of our greatest gains
When we see old things in new ways

Remember that song about a high school kid who knew little 'bout history and cared even less 'bout biology? All he did seem to know for sure was that he had the hots for some young lady. At the time, such a know-nothing stance was considered a pretty damning commentary on just where society was headed. Now, more than a quarter of a century later, we seem to have arrived. Half of all Americans are considered functionally illiterate. What this means is that they lack a grade school knowledge of science and math, literature and history. Indeed, most popular media is directed at the mental equivalent of a twelve-year-old - and that's still a reach for some NBA players. But while I accept that we have become a nation of dummies in general, I worry specifically 'bout history. Are we really doomed to repeat it if we don't study it?

For years, I believed Santayana was right. Forget the lessons of the past and you live to see such things as the Salem Witch Trials replaced by Recovered Memory Syndrome and National Prohibition replaced by the War On Drugs. Been there. Done that. Remember when prayer was in all the schools - and everywhere else for that matter? It was called the Dark Ages! And how many more times are those four spoilsport horsemen of the apocalypse going to have to ride into towns that merrily outstrip their resources before the connection is made?

So let's get back to learning 'bout history - Right? Well maybe. Unfortunately, history is not the true and unblemished record of the past that most people seem to think it is.

For openers, it's been said that history is written by the victors - which is true. But don't forget that the vanquished will also offer up a pretty good version of what happened. The fact is that everybody's got their own, self-serving, take on events. A friend once told me she wished for a time machine so that she could travel back and see how something like Christ's crucifixion really went down. Indeed there's certainly some wiggle room in the telling of this particular tale, one on which perhaps a billion people now base their lives, because it didn't catch on until a few hundred years after the alleged event. Accounts written at the time say that about two dozen different individuals came forward during that period of about two dozen years - when it had been predicted that a Son of God would appear - to claim the title. So it seems you have History A and History B. Wanna pick one and bet your life - and your afterlife? Is that your final answer?

But even if my friend could travel back to personally witness the year 32 and then return to the present, why would anyone want to accept her subsequent story? There are those who swear a miracle occurred at Fatima. Some people standing in the crowd said the sun did loop-de-loops and an angel appeared in the sky. Others, in the same place at the same time, saw nothing but a few hysterical souls foaming at the mouth and rolling around on the ground. I guess one might liken this to the six stories the five observers of an auto accident tell. And how many times have you attended a happening that bore precious little resemblance to the newspaper account? Just the other day, I was at a meeting where the audience was asked to vote Yea or Nay with a show of hands. While I judged a clear two to one margin on the Yea side, a reporter turned to me and said, "So it's about even then."

The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941 - and then again in 2001. The first time, you had to travel to the middle of the Pacific Ocean to see it. The second time, it came to a theater near you. Needless to say, there were a few distinct differences in the telling now that our former enemies have become our current friends. Remember the huff when a few veterans suggested that the Smithsonian display the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb. As I recall, it was about the same time that Columbus became a racist and Kennewick man turned out to be an Indian. Who would have thought it? And did Shakespeare really write Shakespeare? Who knows? He never referred to his work but, then again, why would he? Playwrights in Elizabethan England were considered about on par with those engaged in bringing bear baiting to town. And Mozart, despite all history has to say now, ranked below the cook then.

Look At It This Way

Strange as it may seem, history like science doesn't stand still. But where science moves up the mountain - allowing a pretty clear view of where we've been - history is free to go off in all directions. And it does. Eden and Atlantis, the Bermuda Triangle and Roswell, New Mexico all have their established histories told and retold in literally hundreds of books. Perhaps the Mafia did hit Kennedy and perhaps Mudd was an accomplice of Booth. Perhaps. The problem with history is that, unlike science, there can be no experiments untainted by human bias; no facts or figures unbent by human perception. So for all the potential insight and predictive power it may hold, always remember that any specific lesson in history may be nothing more than yet another version of HisStory.

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