Friday, July 04, 2008


I had some wonderful teachers in elementary school and high school, but alas, no one could teach history very well. I really don’t blame them; they probably had lousy history teachers, too.

History can be the most boring subject you ever heard of (think dates and places and battles to memorize), or it can conversely be the most exciting subject in the world. A good history teacher realizes that history is more than dates and places and battles - it is mystery, intrigue, successes and failures, aspiration, greed, sacrifice, suffering and sorrow, anxiety, pride, and everything other experience that makes up the human condition. History is about people - and when the personalities and idiosyncrasies, the defects as well as the admirable characteristics of those people get lost in all the boring “facts,” history gets lost as well.

I certainly did not become animated about history from textbooks. I owe my fascination to my dad, who insisted that family vacations were not complete without several stops at historical places. That brought history to life for us.

I’m more into American history, and Ed is more into world history (especially ancient history), but I’m glad we both enjoy learning about the past. Many of the books I read aloud to him are historical nonfiction. For the last year, it seems, we’ve been “stuck” in the 1700s. We started out with the book about our second president, John Adams by David McCullough, which focused especially on his remarkable relationship with his wife, Abigail. It was very well written and enjoyable to read! Then we watched The Adams Chronicles (a 1970s miniseries which had its moments but was somewhat disappointing, so we donated it to the library). Last month we finally got to see the HBO miniseries based on McCullough’s book, which was splendid, and now we are almost finished reading Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson. Sometimes when we wake up in the morning, we have to reorient ourselves to the 21st century!

Back in school, my history teachers implied that the American Revolution was led by old men who all respected and liked each other, who had one common vision, when in fact, most of the men were young, and there were, as to be expected, intense feelings in the group - envy, disdain, annoyance, impatience, and vitriolic hatred as well as respect - and that sometimes given grudgingly. Each man had a vision of independence from Britain, but each man had his own ideas of how to accomplish that and what his individual role would be in the new country. And the characters! If one of my history teachers had told me that Benjamin Franklin had an illegitimate son who fathered his own illegitimate son who fathered yet another illegitimate son - well, history class would have been a lot less dull. And if my teacher had mentioned the fact that old Franklin enjoyed playing chess with women while both were lounging together in a bathtub - well, that would have sparked some interest, too. Who knew that Thomas Jefferson had money problems because he was a shopaholic? One of the reasons he sold his library to the Library of Congress was because he needed the money to pay debts. He wanted the finer things in life, especially for his beloved home, Monticello, and he managed to obtain them, regardless of the financial consequences. Ah, at last we understood the Louisiana Purchase! Jefferson saw 828,000 square miles of territory and said, “Hey! I want to buy that!”

So today, July 4, is the first Independence Day for me when I actually appreciate all the history bundled up in it. Memorizing dates and battles has never been my area of strength...but I can tell you that Adams and Franklin and Jefferson and others were crossing the Atlantic ocean in ships that had to carry livestock that they could slaughter for food during the voyage. Nothing like watching your dinner walk on board your vessel with you, huh? Happy 4th!

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