History And Knowing Who We Are

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Former President Harry S. Truman once remarked that the history we don’t know is the only new thing in the world. Picking up on a related theme, the late Daniel Boorstin, an eminent historian, Librarian of Congress, and griend of mine, wrote that planning for the future without a sense of the past is similar to planting cut flowers and hoping for the best. Today, the new generation of young Americans are like a field of cut flowers, by-and-large historically illiterate. This does not bode well for our future.

After delivering a talk at the University of Missouri, I spoke with a young woman who said that until my talk she had not known that all of the original 13 colonies were on the east coast. How could a student at a fine university not know this, I wondered. On another occasion, I taught an honors seminary to 25 history majors at Dartmouth in Hanover, New Hampshire. The first morning I asked if anyone could identify George Marshall. Not a single person raised their hand. After a long silence, one young man asked tentatively if he had something to do with the Marshall Plan. Yes, I said. And that’s where we started talking about the General who supervised the U.S. Army during World War II and later received the Nobel Prize as Secretary of State. We cannot, however, blame these students for their lack of understanding and awareness of history.

All of us who are educators, parents, and writers bear a great responsibility: We must communicate to the younger generation that Americans—as individuals, but also collectively as a nation—cannot truly know who we are or where we are going unless we know where we have been. We should value what our forebears—and that includes our own parents and grandparents—have done for us; otherwise our history will simply slip away. If we inherit an old oil painting and no one tells us that it is a priceless work of art, then we’ll probably lose interest in it, either sticking it in a closet or selling it. Of course, history is not static like a painting, but eternally fascinating, because events and people can be freshly examined with new techniques and perspectives. Each generation, we peel back biases that have blinded those before us. The more we know about the past enables us to ask richer and more provocative questions about who we are today. We also must tell the next generation one of the great truths of history: that no past event was preordained. Every battle, election, and revolution could have turned out differently at any point along the way, just as a person’s own life can change unpredictably. Nothing occurs in a vacuum, a fact that is not as self-evident as it might sound, particularly to a young person.

And we would do well to remind young people that nobody ever lived in the past. Jefferson, Adams, and Washington did not walk around thinking, “Isn’t it fascinating living in the past?” They lived in the present, of course, just as we do today, every bit uncertain of the future as we are. How easy it is for historians and biographers—or any of us—to look backward in time and judge the actions of others. Yet we are not making those tough decisions in real time with definite uncertainties.

We Americans are infatuated with the idea of the self-made man or woman, but there is no such creature. Every person has been affected, changed, shaped, helped, and hindered by others. Each of us knows people who’ve opened for us a window into a new world, inspired us, praised our efforts, provided us with a sense of direction, and straightened us out when we’ve strayed. Most often they have been our parents, but almost as frequently they have been teachers, changing our lives perhaps with a single sentence, a lecture, or by just taking an interest in your struggle. Family, teachers, friends, rivals, and competitors have all shaped us. So, too, have those who lived long before us. Think about symphony composers, painters, poets, and writers of great literature: We walk around every day quoting Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Pope without even knowing it. We believe that its our way of speaking, but it’s actually what we have been given.

The laws that govern us, the freedoms we enjoy, the institutions that we often unfortunately take for granted, represent the hard work of others stretching back far into the past. Acting indifferent to this fact does not just smack of ignorance, but rudeness. How can we claim indifference to learning about those people who made it possible for us to become citizens of the world’s greatest country? The freedoms we enjoy are not just a birthright, but something for which millions have struggled, suffered, and died.

Character and Destiny

None of the writers and signers of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia during that fateful summer of 1776 were superhuman; each had flaws, failings, and weaknesses. Some ardently disliked others. All said and did things he regretted. Yet the fact that these imperfect human beings rose to the occasion and performed as they did testifies to their humanity. It is our ability then and now to rise to the occasion and exhibit our strengths—not our failings, weaknesses, and sins—that define us as Americans.