Sunday, August 30, 2015

Why does history matter? (Sunday morning ruminations)

"Why does history matter?"
This is the sort of question my eighth grader asks me when frustrated.

He's my homeschool kid (the other two are in not-home-schools) for a variety of reasons, though we'll just call it "falling through the cracks." He's a smart kid, good at building (with popsicle sticks, in Minecraft, and in taking apart and putting together Nerf guns), good at understanding the ideas of math but not at memorizing times tables. He gets things: from the small concepts to big ones of how and why.

So why is he so resistant to history?For him personally, it's not an interest. And it involves reading and writing.

But why is the USA resistant to history?

Is it because we've taken all the joy out of it by trying to cover everything in the textbooks, without going into any depth or linking our past to the rest of the world? Is it because textbooks are chosen by a committee and quite often the members of that committee are there to push their own political agenda, not to care about kids learning to think about history? Some accuse these school boards of trying to keep the kids from thinking or questioning, which are inherently dangerous to certain politicians.

Of course, there's this:

 “Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it.” ― Edmund Burke

 But my son is thirteen; he's pretty sure he's not the one making history. He doesn't have the interest or drive. Except maybe he'll invent some fabulous stuff, like teleportation and time machines. Maybe a nice jet pack. I point out to him that in that case, he needs to understand and build on what scientists and engineers have already done in those fields. Standing on the shoulders of giants, as Isaac Newton said.

 “Any fool can know. The point is to understand.” ― Albert Einstein

I have to keep in mind that I didn't actually get excited about history as a discipline until after high school.

My first truly excellent experience with a history class was the year after high school. I went with AFS for a year in France, stayed with a family, and took the last year of high school, Terminale, in a lycée. It was my first experience with Modern History taught in a much more global (though still Eurocentric) way. We studied the history and geography of France, the USSR, Japan, the US, and, uh... a couple more countries, all while zooming from post-WWII to present day.

The difference was that the French curriculum drew together threads from all over the world. I learned how to take notes. I learned how to write essays, a skill my high school teachers had failed to instill in me. I learned to think about history as a global subject, not as a boring textbook developed by a large corporation to be as non-controversial as possible and chosen by a school board. The last year of high school in France is pretty much like AP classes. I got college credit for passing the Baccalauréat.

History is about controversy and change. Part of history is lost if we don't know about everyday lives, about what they thought, believed, loved, did to survive, did to thrive, and so on. But history would be nothing without the big things that happened and sometimes those big things are caused by the small things. Puritans didn't just appear in the Atlantic Ocean and wash up in Massachusetts to found a colony. They ran away from England and drifted to the Netherlands, then drifted around.

What was happening in England in the seventeenth century? I mean, what were these people doing in the "wilderness"?



And why were these people out wandering around? We step back a little further:


It wasn't like the witch trials of Salem were isolated. There were witchcraft trials all over Europe and had been for centuries.  Catholic or Protestant, people still lived with a Medieval mindset of magic and devils and demons. Anyone who didn't fit their mold, say a woman who acted as a midwife (and something like half of babies died before they were two), or who prepared herbal remedies (and even though people took the remedy they would still die, so it was obviously the fault of the remedy), was under suspicion. Anyone who spoke out against authority. Anyone who didn't go to church enough.

If the Spanish Inquisition (whom no one expects) could burn people for being Jewish and Muslim and Protestant and a slightly different type of Catholic, they would certainly arrest people accused of consorting with Satan.

Now here's the bit that actually has to do with my writing:

France had stopped persecuting witches just for witchcraft, but in the late seventeenth century, every time someone died suddenly, they looked at "witches" who might or might not have supplied people with poison to get rid of their family member or rival.

Louis XIVth's second official mistress, Mme de Montespan might or might not have gone to witches to perform black magic to win over the king and then for aphrodisiac potions to keep him coming back for more. We will never know many details, because Louis had his inquisitors gather together all the testimony against her and lock it in a box--which he burned.

France was also moving back to persecuting Huguenots, the French Calvinist Protestants. Louis XIVth's grandfather was Henri IV, who was raised Protestant and who won the Wars of Religion in part by becoming Catholic and yet allowing the Protestants to remain Protestant. He issued the Edict of Nantes in 1598.

Louis, though, started shoving Protestants around, showing how awesomely holy he was. He would billet his cruelest soldiers in Huguenot families and turn a blind eye when the women were raped and the families robbed blind.

Just a couple of years after the Affair of the Poisons died down, in 1685, he decided that all this tolerance had gone on long enough and revoked the Edict. The Protestants were officially not allowed to worship anymore and were required to be baptized by the Catholics.

Basically, he said that because the religious wars had ended and most people were Catholic anyway and Calvinism was false religion, they just didn't need an edict anymore.

"And since by this fact the execution of the Edict of Nantes and of all that has ever been ordained in favor of the said R.P.R. has been rendered nugatory, we have determined that we can do nothing better, in order wholly to obliterate the memory of the troubles, the confusion, and the evils which the progress of this false religion has caused in this kingdom, and which furnished occasion for the said edict and for so many previous and subsequent edicts and declarations, than entirely to revoke the said Edict of Nantes, with the special articles granted as a sequel to it, as well as all that has since been done in favor of the said religion. "

And he set out to imprison any nobles who weren't Catholic and confiscate their lands. And told them they weren't allowed to leave. And the ones who had left had to come back and be baptized or their lands would be confiscated.

You can imagine most of the Huguenots didn't just roll over and be baptized. They sold what they could and fled. Brain drain. Financial drain. And where did these people go? The Netherlands, England, Switzerland, Germany, the Americas. And guess what? Those countries were already French enemies.

So the REFORMATION again. And continued nervousness about Protestants--after all the crazy Protestants had beheaded the English king earlier in the century. A KING! The dude with Divine Right and all that! Plus, they kept fighting wars against the gloriously Catholic kingdom of France! They obviously couldn't be trusted.

And back to our Puritans and their witch trials: it was the 1690s. The Pilgrims had been around for a few generations and some people dissented against the authority of their preachers. People had land disputes. People were human and sinned.

A group of girls got bored and their Barbados slave did magic for them.


THAT is why we study history. You start following the threads back through time, looking for causes and effects. These things don't happen in a vacuum.

Arthur Miller knew that. He wrote that play because of the Un-American Activities Communism Witch Hunt. He saw his friends and fellow liberal thinkers being named in secret lists and losing their livelihoods and careers and everything they had because someone who disliked them denounced them as Communists.

Nowadays, there are people freaking out about immigrants. And about Muslims. And all sorts of things. How long until we get to the point with one or more of those issues that we start prosecuting and persecuting people accused of having immigrant parents? Or not hating Muslims enough?

THAT is why we study history. Because people will repeat it for their own gain and the rest of us are doomed to brace ourselves. Education is subversive.

BONUS for those who read this far: this article on the Huguenots and their exodus from France.

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