Saturday, July 17, 2010

For the love of history

When I hear that history is the least liked subject among students, it saddens me. Some of the best memories of my life are from my younger years when I was first discovering a love for learning about the past. History is important and fun. Evaluating past events helps us move down a successful path and learning about others helps cultivate understanding. I wish that more school related experiences would give children the opportunities to get to know and love history as some of my favorite scholarly endeavors did.

My interest in bygone days was first recognized by my fifth grade teacher. She told me about an old mansion in her neighborhood that was for sale. My parents took me to see it. My strongest memory of the visit was of the family's library. It was a large room with bookshelves on every wall. Books were strewn all over the floor. I suppose now that they were in the process of being boxed. The home had most recently been owned by an elderly lady who had recently passed away. I imagined her standing in her library, browsing her collections, taking in that intoxicating smell of old papers and leather that was hitting my nose for the first time in my life. A few weeks after the visit, my parents learned that the house had been burned to the ground by vandals. The loss hit me hard. I imagined the old woman's documented memories and personal belonging up in smoke and couldn't understand why anyone would be so cold as to wipe out part of this stranger's legacy. The "sense of place" and of a person's lifetime that I discovered in this fine home was the first step in awakening a passion for the past in me. Standing in a spot where many stood before me made my brain sing while I contemplated how individuals use their unique surroundings to make a personal imprint on the world.

In sixth grade, Mr. Kelley stood at the blackboard and told us about King Tut. It was the first time a past culture so distinctly foreign from my own was laid before me. I learned how different cultures had different views and different struggles. I tried first to imagine what it would be like to be an archaeologist discovering the treasures of past civilizations. I was engrossed with stories of curses befalling those who tried to unravel the mysteries of the Egyptians in a truth is stranger than fiction sort of way. The unique glassy photos of artifacts were thrilling and realizing that others lived without the comforts and traditions that seemed vital to my survival and understanding of myself as a person was enlightening. Considering the cleverness, artistry, and unique ideas of humanity that we exhibit in the materials we create through time remains my primary scholarly interest to this day.

In high school, I volunteered to work at a Vanderbilt Mansion in a nearby town as an honor society project. I was asked to index Vanderbilt family scrapbooks. This was my first exposure to "archives," though I didn't know the meaning of that word at the time and it was not used by those introducing me to the discipline. The William K. Vanderbilt family scrapbooks were kept in an office within the mansion turned museum and was accessed by walking through ornate former family living spaces. I tried to imagine myself living in this space overlooking Long Island's Northport Harbor, enamored by the art that surrounded me and William's natural history collections. I began to wonder about the nameless people who took the time to cut out articles and paste them in the books that I browsed. History to me was about the big names (such as Vanderbilt), the major events, and relevant places... but it was slowly becoming about the lesser known details left for me to discover (such as the Vanderbilt servants). It is at this time that I realized with full force that history is about everything and all of the stories related back to me. What makes me different from a Vanderbilt? What nameless people help shape my own destiny and my legacy?

History takes a bit of imagination. We don't often explain this or encourage it in its study. History is about everyone and everything. It is about how those who came before us lived their lives -- the paths they chose and the alternative directions not followed. History is a wide breadth of stories that can be accompanied by as many questions. How did the people in the past live and what events, circumstances and settings influenced their situation? Most importantly, history should ask, "how can I learn from the examples of those who came before me?" Students can come to realize that history is all about each individual and imagine themselves in alternative situations. History is about who we can be, who we choose not to be, and how we can change ourselves. Every individual story helps tell a larger story of humanity. Getting to know history by seeing oneself at the center of it and understanding that one is part of this larger story can make all the difference for a student.

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