History and Life Appreciation

I am always amazed at the lack of knowledge of history by most Americans, as well as disdain many have for cultural history the arts.    Virtually no one remembers or knows about the Cambodian genocide, especially people under 30.  Knowledge of the great wars and ideological battles of the 20th century is meager at best — a “Cold War” that appears a bit ridiculous to today’s youth, and world wars that now seem more to be entertainment for the History Channel than real.

Today is one such day.  December 7th is Pearl Harbor day, commemorating a day that for a time was as emotionally powerful as 9-11 is today.  There have been movies like Tora, Tora, Tora or more recently Pearl Harbor, a Hollywood blockbuster.  But ask around what ‘happened on this day’, especially to people under 30 and not especially interested in world affairs and you’ll often get a blank stare.  People do not remember the ‘day that will live in infamy.’

I suppose that could be dismissed as no big deal — forgetting a date doesn’t mean one doesn’t know what happened, and memorizing dates doesn’t lead to real understanding.  I disagree — I have always found the ‘don’t memorize dates’ mantra of some to be misguided, learning dates allows one to create a chronological map in ones head.  Knowing that Germany attacked the Soviet Union almost half a year before Pearl Harbor is important to know.  Yet I think the problem is deeper, our culture has become so obsessed with the present and the future that the past is seen at best as an interesting story, but not necessarily important.

To be sure, you’ll always have ‘history buffs,’ folk who immerse themselves in history, often focusing on particular eras like the civil war, military history, or Nazi Germany.  There’s a reason why so many of the popular history books are about war.   And a lot of people are truly fascinated by learning of what life was like in the past.  To me, knowledge of history gives one a different perspective of life.

For instance, I find myself often thinking, as I drive to work, how this landscape might have looked in the past, imagine it with Indians, early settlers, or even in the recent past.  I think about how it might change, and view even my own little corner of the world as a point not only in space, but in time.  The more I learn about the past, the more real that is to me.  When I’m with travel courses in Italy and can convey the history, the experience changes.  Venice, for instance, is more than just a beautiful, romantic tourist trap, but the buildings and layout have meaning, one can feel as if one is walking through time.  When I took a class to Wittenberg, Germany to talk about the impact of the reformation on European politics, being there made a huge difference, students noted it clearly in their journals.  Connecting to history is important not just to learn lessons or honor the past, but also to enrich our own appreciation of this life we have.  It protects us from falling into the trap of living superficially, so focused on the bills, problems and conflicts of the day that we don’t fully appreciate what life means.  If we don’t live with appreciation of our social-historical context, we are going through life with blinders, focused on a small and usually unsatisfying aspect of this existence.

Similarly, people tend not to connect with the arts and our cultural history. I co-teach courses with Steve Pane, a renowned pianist and music historian, and Sarah Maline, an art historian.   It’s clear that if one looks at art or listens to music without understanding the social political context in which that art was created, the experience is less.  When Steve and I co-taught a section that dealt with The Marraige of Figaro, not only did we go through the details of the French revolution and the impact of the enlightenment, but Steve also recalled a “confrontation” (albeit friendly) between himself and Sarah.  Focused on Italian history, Steve had a rather benign view of Napoleon, who had in many ways made life better for the Italians and set up the later Risorgimento.  Sarah, who has done considerable work on Spanish art history, saw Napoleon as a horrible perpetrator of war crimes and atrocities — the Italian and Spanish experiences of Napoleonic rule differ, as does its impact on various art forms.

If music from the classical or romantic era is just some nice stuff played on NPR, and paintings are just interesting things you might feel compelled to go see at the Louvre in Paris, then one can be forgiven for thinking a lot of this “culture” is boring.  Compared to our fast paced world of action epics and frenetic video games, it does seem rather bland.  When one learns not only about art and music history, but connects it to the changes in culture, politics, and human thought, it suddenly means so much more.  Co-teaching with colleagues the last decade has enriched my life more than I could imagine.  My Children and War course with Mellisa has led me to reshape my future research direction, while learning more about the arts has affected both my research and my personal enjoyment of life.  Learning something new brings real benefits!

Alas, as much as Steve has taught me to appreciate about music, he needs my help to overcome one obstacle: he doesn’t like musicals.  He wouldn’t use those words (he does not want to sound judgmental), he’d say he finds them “uninteresting,” I guess like I might find Dunkin Donuts coffee.  Friday night I went to a concert by a singer of whom I am becoming a big fan: Dennis St. Pierre. He gave a great concert with his colleagues Devin Dukes and Jason Hersom, half broadway musical songs, half Christmas music.   Last summer I saw Dennis St. Pierre in Les Miserables at the Maine State Music Theater, and I blogged about it in an entry “Compassion.”  Because of the internet I found I could e-mail him, so I send him a link to the blog entry, where I described the profound meaning the performance had for me.  I was amazed/delighted when he wrote back that he had shared my blog with the entire cast.  Wow.  What a treat to be able to actually communicate to artists how much their work means!  Anyway, I got on his mailing list and hence found out about the concert last night. It was great.

I’m not sure how I’m going to get Steve to get over his aversion to musicals and learn to really appreciate them, but I’ll try, maybe cajoling him over espresso at the “piazza” in the arts department.   And to be fair to Steve, since I’m teasing him here, he amazes me with his eclectic capacity to engage not only wide ranges of music from Radiohead to world sounds, but his interest in politics, philosophy, popular culture, etc.   I guess we all have our version of Dunkin Donuts coffee.

I tell students nothing is more important in writing than transitions, but I don’t know how I can get back to Pearl Harbor day from that aside, so I’ll just shift gears.   Most people will bemoan the lack of knowledge of what December 7th means by criticizing the youth for not knowing the importance of the WWII, or understanding the struggle to defeat fascism and Japanese militarism.   Most will see it from the standpoint of a ‘date all citizens should know.’  That is a valid point.  But more fundamental: as a culture disconnecting from history or the arts, we hurt ourselves on many levels — including how we appreciate everyday life.

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  1. #1 by Nathaniel Burns on December 7, 2008 - 19:21

    Scott,
    You (and readers) would love this sketch from Saturday Night Live. It is exactly along the lines of what you are blogging about. I had literally just finished watching it when I checked your blog. What a coincidence.

    -Nate

    http://www.nbc.com/Saturday_Night_Live/video/clips/common-knowledge/2447/

  2. #2 by Eve on December 9, 2008 - 04:00

    Fascinating article. How wonderful to be able to teach in such a great environment!

    You wrote the other day about how compassion arises out of being able to empathize. I think the parallel you drew between Pearl Harbor day and 9/11 is perfect. If younger generations imagined how they’d feel about enemy planes bombing us, they’d get it.

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