It has been fun writing these newsletters every week, and I’ve been thinking more about how to expand my writing into doing longer pieces on a more regular basis.
I’ve always been drawn to history, but as I’ve gotten more involved in politics and social justice work, I sometimes wonder if writing about history isn’t the best way to make an impact nowadays, with so many urgent and crucial issues to address. For instance, journalism seems more important than ever, it’s an interesting challenge, and I’d be good at it.
But then I try to remember that while making an impact is nice, I’m primarily concerned with doing what means the most to me. With journalism, obsessively following the news seems to be a prerequisite, and that’s just not how I like to spend my time.
If I focus instead on finding work that allows for deeper research and longer time horizons, which is what studying history requires, then I know that impact is more likely to come as a result of that.
My friend Nick reminded me of this recently. I’d been telling him how annoyed I get when people write about history as if their subjects weren’t real human beings making real human decisions. History is treated as something dead and gone, which is why it’s often so dry. One of my big aspirations in wanting to tell stories from history is to counter this tendency.
Nick said he had an article for me, a transcript of a speech by the historian David McCullough, who has written popular books about the year 1776 and John Adams. I was extremely gratified to see McCullough expressing the same idea:
The textbooks are dreary, they’re done by committee, they’re often hilariously politically correct and they’re not doing any good. Students should not have to read anything that we, you and I, wouldn’t want to read ourselves.
And we ought to be growing, encouraging, developing historians who have heart and empathy to put students in that place of those people before us who were just as human, just as real—and maybe in some ways more real than we are.
Nobody lived in the past, if you stop to think about it. Jefferson, Adams, Washington—they didn’t walk around saying, ”Isn’t this fascinating, living in the past?“ They lived in the present just as we do. The difference was it was their present, not ours. And just as we don’t know how things are going to turn out for us, they didn’t either.
That’s an implication of the idea that I wasn’t considering: if history consists of real people making real decisions, then proper study of history can be just as important in dealing with the problems of today as direct action is—not that they are mutually exclusive, anyway.
One of the most important things I learned in the social justice fellowship I did last winter is that there are many methods of social change. There are the obvious ones—running for political office and supporting campaigns, community organizing, direct service—but those aren’t all. Journalism and art are on the list, too. And different methods are more well-suited to people with different temperaments.
My temperament is that I like to read long books, and connect lots of different ideas together, and spend time thinking about complex questions, trying to make sense of them. Not that there aren’t politicians and organizers and journalists who do these things, but it seems to be people like McCullough, teachers and authors, who have more opportunities to operate on longer-term, larger projects.
He reminds us how important it is, for improving our world, to pay attention to the lessons of history, even—especially—when events of the day feel so fresh and unprecedented.
An old friend, the late Daniel Boorstin, who was a very good historian and Librarian of Congress, said that trying to plan for the future without a sense of the past is like trying to plant cut flowers.
Paul Graham said, “history is another name for ‘all the data we have so far.’“
They talk about what a difficult, dangerous time we live in. And it is very difficult, very dangerous and very uncertain. But so it has always been. And this nation of ours has been through darker times. And if you don’t know that—as so many who broadcast the news and subject us to their opinions in the press don’t seem to know—that’s because we’re failing in our understanding of history.
To meet our current challenges, we need people to think long and hard about alternative visions of our world, and if it’s true that there is nothing new under the sun, that means the answers are already out there, back there, buried in the historical record. We need people to bring those answers alive by telling compelling stories about who came up with those answers and how, what they went through to get them, and what they can teach us.
That’s a good reason to do history. But maybe an even better one, from an individual perspective, is that it’s fun.
History isn’t just something that ought to be taught or ought to be read or ought to be encouraged because it’s going to make us a better citizen. It will make us a better citizen; or because it will make us a more thoughtful and understanding human being, which it will; or because it will cause us to behave better, which it will. It should be taught for pleasure: The pleasure of history, like art or music or literature, consists of an expansion of the experience of being alive, which is what education is largely about.
Fiction writing fascinates me, but I find it daunting to come up with ideas. History is kind of the same thing, except the ideas are already done for you:
And there’s no secret to teaching history or to making history interesting. Barbara Tuchman said it in two words, ”Tell stories.“ That’s what history is: a story. And what’s a story? E.M. Forster gave a wonderful definition to it: If I say to you the king died and then the queen died, that’s a sequence of events. If I say the king died and the queen died of grief, that’s a story. That’s human.
Finally, for McCullough, dedication to history is an act of gratitude, even an obligation:
We have to get across the idea that we have to know who we were if we’re to know who we are and where we’re headed. This is essential. We have to value what our forebears—and not just in the 18th century, but our own parents and grandparents—did for us, or we’re not going to take it very seriously, and it can slip away. If you don’t care about it—if you’ve inherited some great work of art that is worth a fortune and you don’t know that it’s worth a fortune, you don’t even know that it’s a great work of art and you’re not interested in it—you’re going to lose it…
The laws we live by, the freedoms we enjoy, the institutions that we take for granted—as we should never take for granted—are all the work of other people who went before us. And to be indifferent to that isn’t just to be ignorant, it’s to be rude. And ingratitude is a shabby failing. How can we not want to know about the people who have made it possible for us to live as we live, to have the freedoms we have, to be citizens of this greatest of countries in all time? It’s not just a birthright, it is something that others struggled for, strived for, often suffered for, often were defeated for and died for, for us, for the next generation.
After a leisurely Wednesday, we wanted to venture farther afield on Thursday, so we visited Gooseberry Falls State Park on the beautiful North Shore of Lake Superior.
We had our pick of trails and began by taking one that follows the languid Gooseberry River out to the lake. You probably won’t be surprised to see that the foliage was stunning.
I love Lake Superior. It’s so moody. On a day like this, when the sky is overcast and the wind is up and the waves are crashing in, it feels like you’re in some movie about an 1890s whaling expedition.
Here’s me spotting a bald eagle with my ‘nocs!
Turning back in the other direction, we made our way to the falls.
It’s not the most voluminous waterfall we’ve been to, but in complexity and the ability to get right up close, it ranks high.
Christine and the Queens - “People, I’ve been sad”
The ’80s vibe is seriously back in style, and I’m enjoying it. I like calling it “new new wave,” which is probably terribly unoriginal. But it’s fun. Ashley and Naomi introduced me to the song this week, and honestly I’m not sure I have any idea what it means, but it feels like it fits the moment.
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Thanks for reading. Please take care, and write back if you can!