On the importance of reading history…

Current events always get me frustrated about how few people really read and reflect on history.  My husband blames the way it is taught in schools, and I agree with him to a certain extent.  But in fairness, both the textbooks I read as a student and the ones I see adopted now are, well, boring.  So unless they have a teacher with a genuine passion for history, one who is also maybe not afraid to push the envelope a bit and possibly offend some parent or politician in the process, most students are destined to never know how exciting, engaging, and deeply relevant history can be.  I was fortunate to have such teachers, and also to have parents who loved history and made it come alive for me by stopping at every roadside historical marker, by taking me to abandoned ghost mining towns, or by regular visits to the old Colorado History Museum in downtown Denver.  The recent push to whitewash the Advanced Placement US History curriculum so that it only reflects our past in a “positive” light and teaches “American Exceptionalism” (I won’t EVEN start on that) particularly incenses me.  It was in AP US History as a high school senior that I first began to learn how to critically think about historical documents and events, and to recognize that what makes us truly great as a country is not that we have always been perfect, but that we have had extraordinary figures emerge who forced us to confront our imperfections and strive to reach the ideals we profess to embrace.

One book in particular that I recently finished has me considering Ferguson, Selma, the vitriol directed at our President, and the University of Oklahoma SAE fraternity in a new and more informed way.  The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson (Random House, 2010) was the winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction when it was published, and it more than deserves all the acclaim it garnered.  This is, quite simply, an extraordinary volume, one that I believe every American should read.  Wilkerson narrates the story of America’s “Great Migration”, the movement of African-Americans out of the South from roughly World War I to the 1970’s.  Through interviews with thousands of people, and by focusing on three -Ida Mae, George, and Robert- in particular, Wilkerson makes this mass migration personal and immediate.  Her writing is astonishing, her research is impeccable, and the book’s 500 pages read like a well-crafted novel instead of a historical tome.  Even if you don’t read history as a rule, I would encourage you to read this.  The way some black families had to escape from their oppressive Jim Crow situations reminded me of Jews escaping Nazi Germany, or refugees fleeing from ISIS…except that this happened in our own country, to people who are still alive to talk of it.  I don’t think it makes me less patriotic to know or grapple with this knowledge.  In fact, I would argue it makes me more so.  And despite protestations that we live in a “post-racial” America, I’ve heard enough in the classes I taught, and seen enough in my travels around the country to have observed first hand that racism is still very much a part of our reality, albeit in a subtler form.

We are also a nation of deep income inequality.  Another book I just finished, The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown (Penguin Books, 2014), tells a beautiful true story about American perseverance, optimism, and determination.  In the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the American eight-oar rowing crew from the University of Washington won a gold medal.  But these were not the entitled sons of East Coast established money usually associated with the sport.  These were the sons of lumberjacks and dairy farmers and fishermen, struggling with the grim realities of the Great Depression.  Many of them worked hard and dangerous jobs every summer in order to scrape together the tuition money they needed.  When they won the Olympic trials, though, they were informed that they needed to come up with $5000 within a week in order to pay their own way to Berlin, or else the wealthier members of the Penn rowing team would go in their stead.  This was an impossible sum for these young men, yet the city of Seattle and their hometowns across the state managed to raise it in time.  Their story is told principally through Joe Rantz, a motherless teen who was essentially abandoned by his father, yet somehow found the strength of character to pursue a college education and fight for a place on the rowing team.  Here again, good writing makes history (as well as the finer points of rowing) come alive.  And the stories of these young men illuminate aspects of the American experience we can all be proud of.

Finally, as one of my favorite satirists, Jon Stewart, has so succinctly pointed out, “we are a nation of immigrants — who hate new immigrants.”  The last book I’ll mention in this post is a novel.  Orphan Train, by Christina Baker Kline (HarperCollins Publishers, 2013) has been on the New York Times Bestseller List, and it caught my attention because the history of “Orphan Trains” that ran from East Coast cities to the Midwest from 1854 to 1929 is very interesting to me.  Somewhere I got the idea (maybe from my grandmother?) that my “crazy” great-grandmother was an Orphan Train rider, and that’s how she ended up in Greeley, CO.  My sister has not been able to verify this (or much else about this ancestor) in her genealogical research, but it would sure explain a lot!  Regardless of my personal association with the story, the idea that thousands of orphaned or abandoned children were shipped off to uncertain futures with families that perhaps were only looking for another field hand or housemaid is an interesting chapter in our history.  One of the two main protagonists, Vivian, is an Irish immigrant who experiences terrible prejudice in New York City and then mistreatment in Minnesota before finally finding a caring family.  At the end of her life, she meets Molly, who is mired in the modern foster family system.  This is not necessarily the best fiction I’ve ever read, but the story is well enough narrated, and the topic is a fascinating and rarely told chapter in  American history.

As I watch our education “reform” movement drain all joy from the learning process and try to force more and more young people into the STEM mold, I fervently hope that we can still continue to produce writers and historians who will tell the important stories about our past in engaging and compelling ways.  One thing I know after thirty years of teaching, though, is this:  our kids are smart, and they don’t like being lied to.  I watched many teens light up with interest when I would show them paintings and explain the historical stories behind them, and as they moved into the upper levels one of my deepest pleasures was in being able to debate the historical impulses behind the literature we read or the current events we analyzed.  Despite efforts to whitewash and sanitize what they learn, I met many young people who could see past propaganda and empty “positive” narratives.  The fact that they are now protesting both the excesses of standardized testing and the political moves to ban or re-write the AP US History curriculum makes me optimistic.