Saturday, December 15, 2012

Timothy Egan on Why We Need History

Egan offers a very eloquent defense of the study of history.  Here is a taste:

A packet of letters arrived the other day from the honors English class at St. Lawrence School in Brasher Falls, N.Y. Snail mail, from high school sophomores? Yes, and honest, witty and insightful snail mail at that. They had been forced to read a book of mine.

“Personally, I don’t like reading about history or learning about it,” wrote one student, setting the tone for the rest of the class.

“The Dust Bowl? Really?” So began another missive. “When we heard we were reading your book…heads dropped. Let me rephrase that, heads fell to the floor and rolled down the hallway.”

You get the drift: history is a brain freeze. And, writers of history, well, there’s a special place with the already-chewed gum in nerd camp for them. But as I read through the letters I was cheered. Some of the last survivors of the American Dust Bowl were high school sophomores when they were hit with the nation’s worst prolonged environmental disaster. In that 1930s story of gritty resilience, the Brasher Falls kids of 2012 found a fresh way to look at their own lives and this planet.

History is always utilitarian, and often entertaining. It stirs the blood of any lover of the past to see Steven Spielberg’s majestic “Lincoln” — at its core, a drama about politicians with ZZ Top beards writing legislation — crush the usual soulless, computer-generated distractions at the box office.

But history, the formal teaching and telling of it, has never been more troubled. Two forces, one driven by bottom-line educators answering to corporate demands to phase out the liberal arts, the other coming from the circular firing squad of academics who loathe popular histories, have done much to marginalize our shared narratives.

Read the rest here.

No comments: