Note: Still working desperately hard to finish the book. It is nearly done, mostly just tying up loose ends (like getting permission to use all of the pretty pictures). With that said, I’m not going to taunt anyone (especially me) with dates or tentative delivery schedules. It will be done when it’s done. The only thing I’m going to say on the timing is that it will be soon.
I had the strangest experience the other day, and for that reason, I’ve decided to write a strange essay. Here’s what happened.
I was talking with a friend (let’s call him Sam) about recent trends in technology. In the course of the conversation, we found ourselves discussing the finer points of American history. (It then devolved into the anthropology of mushrooms, but, the train of logic made perfect sense at the time. Really.)
Most of the conversation was wonderful. We cracked jokes, exchanged similar views, and generally agreed about everything. I did my usual Steve Jobs shtick, talked up open technologies, and generally babbled about my favorite things. It was a highly enjoyable exchange. Well … right up till we started talking about history, that is. That was when the strangeness happened. As soon as I said, “history,” we found ourselves in disagreement.
Not hostile disagreement or murder your neighbor contention. But it was definitely uncomfortable, and we found ourselves indisputably at odds. No one had said anything of consequence, yet, we were both prepared for a fight over a topic as mundane as “history.” In fact, now that I think on it, the whole thing was really quite distressing.
Not just a little distressing, but the crawl “under your skin and keep you up late at night” type of distressing. And all of this from a single, slightly belligerent comment (made by Sam, of course):
I hate history. Why should I care about things that happened thousands of years ago? I’m too busy trying to live in the present.
At first glance, this might seem a strange thing to get bothered about. After all, what Sam thinks about history has no effect on my life or how I live. It doesn’t impact the type of people I choose as friends or the activities I pursue in my spare time. For that matter, it’s powerless to effect the way I see or interact with the world.
On another level, though, it’s deeply irksome. This is because history is awesome, of course. But it’s also more than that. History isn’t just awesome, it’s also central to nearly everything we do. The way you understand the stories of the past influence how you interpret the future, your politics, and even how you name your children.1
This is why I had such a reaction to Sam’s comment. It denotes a willingness to disengage from the past in favor of a present without context. It also puts you at odds with reality, all 13.7 billion years of it.
That’s really dangerous. It leaves you adrift in a complex and stormy world without the benefit of maps, charts, or even horizon to guide you. When history is left behind, it means that you leave everything behind: science, mathematics, literature, anthropology, psychology, medicine … the whole lot. A willful ignorance of the past is also an ignorance of its many gifts. I can’t imagine hating history, it would be like hating … everything.
After I explained this idea, Sam seemed to get it. (At least he said he did. That might have just been to get me to shut up, though.) But Sam couldn’t quite let it be, he had to explain the rationale behind his comment. This is what he said:
When I said I hate history, I wasn’t referring about the sum of human experience. Rather, I was talking about the very narrow way that history is presented in schools. I hate history as a table of dates, irrelevant names, and uninteresting successions of kings.
At which point, I said, “Oh. Yeah, I hate that too.”
Which raises an important point. Why is that we teach something so vitally important to our children in such a bland form? It’s not how history is studied by the “professionals” nor is it representative of how most think about reality. Yet, it’s what we force feed our children.
Neither one of us could come up with a good answer to that question.
Luckily, it seems like the status quo might be set to change. Over the weekend, I came across the following video by David Christian (and the related project of the same name). From the video and available course materials, it looks like they aim to do something audacious: place the subject of “history” within its proper context, as the story of universal existence.
As far as I’m concerned, that is a good thing. Perhaps it might even result in a little less hate for history.