Learning History, Part 1

Chris Schlect

The local School Board in Spokane, Washington recently held a public hearing to consider whether history should be included among the requirements for high school graduation. Many conservatives were gratified when, after some arguing, history was retained as a requirement. Others, like myself, were sickened (and amused, as I often am with the government schools) that the question even arose. Indeed, through rolled eyes we mock those who spurn history, but few of us are willing to do anything about our own historical ignorance.

Many of you are like me: you slept through your paltry government education. Now you are grown, and you feel robbed of your best years. Well, perhaps you were robbed of your best years. This fact offers no reason why we shouldn’t start now. If you were robbed of your car, you would not consequently decide never to go anywhere again. Perhaps the alternative transportation isn’t as desirable as your car, but you would still go places. Likewise, you would be better off today if your best learning years hadn’t been stolen. Does this mean that you should forego learning today?

Perhaps you haven’t the time. At least you have enough disposable minutes available to you to read this article. To learn history, you don’t need all the time that was available to you in your school days. Your goal is improvement-to start from where you are, not from where you think you should be. Be reasonable, and wade in from the shallows: attempt (perhaps) fifty pages this week. Set aside one hour every other day until you reach fifty pages. Next month you’ll be up to a hundred pages per week. Going slowly is much better than going nowhere, even if your car has been stolen.

If you wasted your first twenty years, you may think yourself to be a Lost Cause. Now you have responsibilities that prohibit you from spending all your time in books. Perhaps you have a full-time job and a family to provide for. Perhaps you are a young homemaker, trying to dominate dirty diapers, meal preparation, and laundry. You once had time, you say. But time, once lost, can never be regained; now you are a Lost Cause. But Lost Causes must realize that brain atrophy is a disease whose effects can be reversed.

One reason I study history is for my children’s sake. I want their education to be far better than mine was (just as I want them to provide an education for their children that is better than what I now provide for mine). My children see my books on the shelf, and they see me pull them down. Sometimes I read in the living room while they play at my feet. They constantly distract me, but it’s important that they see me laboring through an important book-even if (or perhaps especially if) that book should have been read back in high school. I don’t read efficiently when I read around my children (so I also read at other times), but I still value the effort. My three oldest children, ages five, three, and two, tell me they can’t wait to read the books that I read! If I want them to believe that history is essential for everyone, then I need to show them so. My son and I enjoy talking about baseball, bicycles, and Alexander’s campaign into Asia. I am not too interested in “quality time” with my kids, but I am concerned about regular, usual time with them. History is an important part of that time, because history is important. Or rather, my kids are too important to me to neglect my study of history.

Another benefit I’ve found from my study of history is the rich interaction it allows me to share with my wife. My wife reads literature, and studies the historical contexts of authors and settings. She feeds me literary knowledge and the new history she learns. My own reading often provides me with something interesting to relate to her studies, and so the discussion might continue for a week or two. Husbands, do yourselves a favor: make sure your wife has time for a good book. You might have to quit the bowling league, but it’s a small price to pay.

If you’re out of practice, where do you start? First, remember that starting is more important than starting somewhere. So start with what you’re most likely to stay with. Choose what interests you. Perhaps you would like some perspective on Vietnam or Watergate. Does church history interest you? Weapons and warfare? Technology? Popular Culture? Ancient Rome? The Titanic? Pick out a book and read it. Then pick out another. Repeat the process.

The second step is to start yourself on a program of shoring up your knowledge of the big picture. Pick out a good college-level introductory text and begin reading. Start with the sections that interest you, then slowly move into the areas with which you’re unfamiliar. Be careful: too many texts these days are either shallow, intolerably postmodern, or just plain badly written. Contrary to these, I am very pleased to recommend two options: Western Civilization by Jackson Spielvogel (3rd edition, West Publishing), and The Western Heritage by Donald Kagan, Stephen Ozment, and Frank Turner (6th edition, Prentice Hall). These titles come in pared-down, multi-volume versions (printed for one-semester courses). Buy the larger, more expensive single-volume hardcover versions. They are complete, more durable, and the best value.

Is it too late for you to start? Recall Livy: “The study of history is the best medicine for a sick mind; for in history you have a record of the infinite variety of human experience, plainly set out for all to see; and in that record you can find for yourself and your country both examples and warnings; fine things to take as models, base things, rotten through and through, to avoid” (History of Rome I.i.10).