It’s been my experience that when the tests are over and the school year is winding down, librarians want a nonfiction author to charge up the students, and a Common Core speaker to share insights with the staff. So, all through May and June, my calendar is full.
Very often, the day includes a lunch session with a small group of students, that has an opportunity to gab with me over sandwiches. During one such get-together, a brave 8th grader asked, “Why should we care about history, anyway? It’s over.” She was straight talking, direct, and I thought she probably spoke for many of the others present. I gave her the answer I give myself: she and her peers live in the eternal now—perhaps teenagers always have—but popular culture, the media, social networking, and an array of electronic devices make it easy to be inside whatever is trending at the moment. I’ve learned that Internet trends follow the same spike-and-crash arc, and that many of today’s teenagers live within that 24-to-48 hour-blast-and-demise of rumor, hit, meme, song, and video. Surely that must-know imperative has always been with us—whether the information was whispered among friends, shared along on a village path, or written in a letter. Now, however, there appears to be no push back from our surrounding culture, no sense that the immediate world, however compelling, is of less weight than centuries of accumulated knowledge, art, culture, or history. So what could I say to that teen?
I took a plate and held it horizontally: “This,” I said, “is your world. You live in the eternal now.” Then I took a second plate, and placed it vertically, beneath the first: “This is what you stand on.” History is that column, that pillar, on which the present rests. As we investigate the past, as we ask new questions, as we line up cause and effect in new ways, our present changes. Indeed, as we begin to see how easily events could have been different or altered, we begin to see that we can influence the present and craft a new future.
We study history not out of reverence for the past, but to give us the tools to make a better future. Living in the eternal now, how will we ever know if we are just refashioning old mistakes? (I ran across exactly this idea in the work of William Crary Brownell, Edith Wharton’s first book editor, and the subject of my doctoral dissertation.)
All of this, however, is background to another recent experience I had in a school. I decided to make a PowerPoint presentation on the book my wife, Marina Budhos, and I are writing: The Eyes of the World: How Three Friends (Two Lovers), and a Camera Tried to Fight Fascism (Holt, 2014) The book is about Robert Capa, Gerda Taro, and David Seymour (Chim) during the period of the Spanish Civil War.
There are many hooks for readers in this story, and one huge problem: few, if any, teenagers know or care about the Spanish Civil War. So what could I do to engage the students I was visiting? I decided to draw a parallel between nations’ choices about getting involved in the conflict in Spain in 1936 and our choices now about Syria. The parallels are striking: two clear sides, one we support and one we oppose, and a situation in which there are so many crosscurrents and dangers, few want to get involved. I crafted my PowerPoint and the kids responded positively. And then I read an article by Harvey Morris on The New York Times website, in which many scholars were drawing precisely the same parallel.
Why read history? Because we face terrible choices today, and we have the past to study—not as a lessons about right and wrong, but as a mirror that allows us to examine our actions and ourselves more closely. History matters because it is us—deepened, scrutinized, enriched in contemplation. It provides us with an opportunity to pause, weigh, consider, and reflect before we act. That is what I had to offer the questioning teen. I suspect she left with an inkling that I just might be right.
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