Saturday, February 20, 2016

On the Subject of History

I sat down in a Rotary Club meeting in North Canton, Ohio and was asked the following question, "Do they teach history in school today?" My friend, a North Canton insurance salesman, implied young people were ignorant of American and world history. I answered him from my own experience. As a college history instructor for 20 years it was my conviction the students in my classes had little or no knowledge of world-shaping events or the personalities who shaped history. My students admitted they had taken Social Studies courses but nothing identifiable as history.

A few minutes later, the superintendent of the North Canton schools joined us at the table. I asked him, "Does the high school require history courses here in North Canton?" (North Canton schools, by the way, had an excellent reputation for academic excellence...and their football team wasn't bad either!) As I recall, his answer went something like this: "Education today is more interested in providing quality education designed to help graduates find jobs. The only history courses we offer are in advanced placement programs." Most of the Rotarians at my table were surprised and maybe even shocked at his answer.

It is no wonder so many Americans believe history is irrelevant! After all, it is only about the activities and lives of a bunch of dead guys. For most students, history is boring. I blame this view on the fact most history teachers in public schools see history as the repetition and memorizing of names, dates, places, and events. There is little linkage of these events to contemporary culture. Historical personalities are often presented as dry lifeless individuals driven by the force of certain events. Furthermore, all too many twist the facts of history to fit preconceived ideas. Presenting the various interpretations of personalities and events is okay as long as students understand the presenter is doing so from a perspective and having the honesty to explain their view.

On the first day of class, one of my history professors at Cincinnati Christian Seminary slammed a book on his desk and said, "I have an axe to grind, and I'm going to grind it!" Translation: "I have an agenda, an interpretation of historical events and I'm going to present it in such a way you'll agree with me." Okay, I thought, I'll hear you out but I'll form my own view thank you very much!

In the current political climate it is more than obvious the American people have no sense of history. That's a shame, too, because the events of the past shape the present and the future. If you don't know where we've been, you'll certainly have no idea where we are or where we are currently headed. As philosopher George Santayana rightly said, "Those who fail to learn the lessons of the past are doomed to repeat them." (That's not an exact quote, but that's the gist of it.)

Santayana was right! I see history much like the wheels on a wagon. The same, or very similar, events reoccur but history moves forward in time. Technologies change but human character does not. I suppose my view is shaped somewhat by my biblical (at least in part) worldview. Specific circumstances change, but the events arise out of the same type stupid selfish and flawed human decisions. It doesn't take a biblical scholar to read the Old Testament book of Judges to see how events reoccur simply because God's people failed to learn from the lessons of the past!

With that in mind, I recently shared a rather lengthy post on Facebook. The original post was from an Austrian survivor of World War II. She experienced Hitler's rise to power in Germany and the assimilation of Austria. From her experience she traced the gradual assumption of Nazi power and the elimination of individual rights. Her presentation of the facts dovetails nicely with the description given by reputable historians. Further insight can be gleaned from the writings of Dietrich Bonhoffer and others who lived in the 1930s and 1940s.

Here in Sun City, I met Marie and Lowell Amos. Lowell was a cartographer during World War II. He did most of his work in North Africa during Patton's campaign against the Desert Fox, General Erwin Rommel. As Lowell studied the photographs taken on an overflight of a desert oasis, he noted the vestige of a tire track. Knowing the Germans had hidden weapons caches in the desert, he surmised one of those caches lay hidden at the oasis. Allied bombers attacked and destroyed the weapons. This raid launched the Battle of El Alamein, one of the decisive battles in North Africa.

Marie had an interesting story all her own. Raised in Poland, she found herself and her family imprisoned by the Nazis during the war. When the Soviet Union took possession of Poland after the war, she found herself in a Stalinist Gulag. She eventually got her freedom, made her way to the West where she met and married Lowell Amos. I remember hearing her tell her story and how angry she became at those who tried to bad mouth her adopted country. She was aghast at every move by American political leaders, protesters, and anyone who pushed the country toward greater government control and anything smacking of socialism.

Her story agreed with the post I shared on Facebook. Those who do not see the parallels to contemporary events and circumstances are either historically ignorant or blind. There is no one so blind but those who cannot see!!!

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