Other posts related to history

 | April 11, 2011 6:55 pm

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.

1 As a case of how history can impact child names, consider the case of Chastity. (A story which I heard over the weekend.) She was given the name by her parents, after a great aunt, in the hopes that it would inspire her to a life of service and devotion. There was even some talk of Chastity taking religious vows. None of that happened, of course, because Chastity ran away with an older man to have a family.

 | August 6, 2010 8:34 pm

Hunt-Lenox Globe 1I’ve always been intrigued by the phrase “Here Be Dragons” (in Latin “Hic Sunt Dracones”), which was sometimes used to denote dangerous or unexplored territories on older maps.  (Or at least, that’s how the phrase has passed into cultural memory.)  There’s just something romantic about it.  It conjures up thoughts of explorers, adventurers and pioneers heading off to uncharted domains just to see what was there.

Which is why I was shocked to learn that “Hear Be Dragons” or “Hic Sunt Dracones” doesn’t appear on a single historical map.

Not one.

The only place that you can find it is on the Hunt-Lenox globe – a small bronze globe created in the 16th century.*  The magical words appear off the eastern coast of China.

But even there, the actual meaning isn’t clear.  There’s no indication that it was used for uncharted regions or mysterious locales.  It may be referring to legends of the Komodo dragons, which were well known in Europe at the time.

Does this mean that the phrase and everything it has come to stand for is somehow fraudulent?

No, it doesn’t.

Literal representations of “Here Be Dragons” may be lacking, but there are many historical examples of similar admonitions (both verbal and pictorial), some of which are just as interesting.  Below, you can find a gallery of examples, spanning history from the Romans to the late Renaissance.**

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 | July 22, 2010 4:39 pm

imageIt is fascinating how history influences the way we do things. For example, did you know that it is a stringent rule that you only mount a horse from the left hand side?

Getting on the left side of a horse is a rule so deeply ingrained in the culture of horsemanship that it approaches the level of law.  Riding instructors drill it into their pupils.  It is the expected form of mounting/dismounting in a group.  You can even be disqualified from some competitive events if you mount from the right side.

There’s all kinds of explanations for how such a trivial behavior became such an ingrained component of horseback riding.  Some of these even suppose a behavioral foundation, claiming that horses best respond to conditioning and training when it is done on the left side.

Of course, such complicated explanations are wrong.

The real reason stems from the middle ages. Back in the day, people wore swords on their left hips. This was done so that they could draw them with their right hands (seeing as most people are right-handed).  Because of the long slashy thing hanging from your left side, it was all but impossible to mount a horse from the right, which would require you kick your left leg (and said cutting object) over the back of the animal.  It was much easier to mount from the left side and avoid problems entirely.

Yet, even though the rationale for mounting on the left side stems from an obsolete practice (carrying swords), we still do it.  Getting on the left side of a horse has become a part of horsemanship culture.  And because you always approach a horse from the left side, and mount a horse from the left side, and condition a horse from the left side, it’s gotten reinforced and some people think that it’s the only way to get on a horse.  That’s what they tell their students, children, or friends; and those people then propagate the behavior even further, even though there isn’t a compelling reason to continue doing so. The right side works just as well.

“Well, that’s nice,” I can hear you saying, “But so what?  Who cares about which side you get on a horse?  In case you hadn’t noticed, most people will never ride a horse.  It’s a hobby!”

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 | July 21, 2010 3:51 pm

Galileo Moon Sketches - Half Full 2For much of human history, Science and Religion have had a very tumultuous relationship.  Both are systems of beliefs that attempt to answer important questions like: “Where did we come from?” and “How did we get here?”  But because they use different methods to arrive at those answers, it is to be expected that they will not always agree.  Nor is there a guarantee that both sides will remain civil.

Yet, even though Religion and Science don’t always get along, this does not mean that their relationship is one of simple antagonism.  Unlike what modern commentators such as Sam Harris or Christopher Hitchens would have you believe, Science and Religion are not enemies.  Far from it, in fact.

If anything, Science and Religion are siblings.  After all, they share a common ancestry and purpose, and it’s only very recently (within the past 150 years or so) that any society – Western, Islamic or Eastern – has attempted to separate them.

Which is perhaps why it is so disturbing to see attempts by philosophers and believers to set them at each other’s throats.  Within the past few years, there has been a virtual renaissance of pro-Science (read, pro-atheist) books that have come out on the market.  These titles have advocated for a fact based morality, declared war on God, and argued that rational/scientific thought is incompatible with religious belief.  In one Slate.com piece, the author actually seemed to believe that Dr. Francis Collins shouldn’t hold a scientific leadership position because he happens to be an evangelical Christian.  (Never mind his hundreds of peer-reviewed publications and significant contributions to the field of genetics.  After all, it’s not like he sequenced the human genome or anything … )

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