Thursday, March 11, 2010

A Blank Slate

“If you don’t know history, its as if you were born yesterday.”

Howard Zinn, Historian and Author, 1922-2010

I have never quite understood how it has become a cliché of modern education that young people think history is boring. I had my share of uninteresting history teachers but I have always been fascinated anyway by the subject and I spent a large part of my youth reading because I had nothing else to do. I spent the years of my life when most middle class youth are in college alone in a castle in the mountains of central Italy. It was not as romantic as it sounds, it was dull and isolating and not at all stimulating. But I had inherited a huge library from a grandfather whose possessions had mostly been plundered in between the time of his death and my mother's return from exile in England. During those long 23 years of an unhappy marriage the castle stood empty ten months of the year and anything of value was long since looted, to use a contemporary term, by the time my mother came home literally to die. I spent seven winters reading from the library, a room filled with leather bound tomes that dated back to the Middle Ages when my family first emerged from the primordial swamp of Italy's peasant class.I read 17th century books that looked more like manuscripts, reporting on efforts by the Doge of Venice to enforce the Inquisition. I read encyclopedias so horribly unscientific they sounded like science fiction, not facts taken at face value in the historical past. I read about the politics of 19th century Italy as though the events were taking place in the countryside outside my frosted castle windows. Civilta Cattolica, (Catholic Civilization) the journal of the Society of Jesus was leather bound and collected in an unbroken series that covered the crucial revolutionary events in the Papal States right through the unification of Italy in 1870. I sat by the fire and read the past as though it were the present. It was a home education that secured in me a desire to understand the past, not as a series of dates but of events that happened for reasons that can be understood by even a contemporary human being. The basic motivators, power, lust and money have never really changed throughout recorded history.

So, when you consider my rather unusual background, an unhappy one I hasten to add, it is hardly surprising that I should find myself odd man out in a world where interest in the past and a study of geography should be relegated to the unimportant areas of our collective lives. In my efforts to escape my fate as a member of the land owning classes I used to travel as far and as wide as imagination and money would allow. Owning land in the 1970s was not a ticket to large amounts of cash, for if it had been perhaps I could have been persuaded to stay, so I traveled on a budget by motorcycle and tent in the winters when the fields were fallow and I was exhausted by the cold and fed up with the mausoleum I called home. I went south to Africa to find heat like a migrating swallow.

A motorcycle ride through Tunisia will show a young man sights not expected, though one would expect date palms, donkeys, and djellabas, though a Roman amphitheater at El Djem came as a surprise to me. This was the Roman province of Carthage and what was built in Rome was emulated in Africa as in all the other far flung outposts of empire. Romans everywhere wanted their culture, they liked hot baths at Bath in England, just as American soldiers expect to find hamburgers on their plates in the Hindu Kush.

There is a tendency to imagine sometimes that people in other countries are better educated, Europeans like to mock Americans for their lack of education, but in the fields of engineering and medicine America has always outclassed much of the rest of the world. In the abstract Americans fail to grasp the value and importance of history and geography and anthropology which, in a world dedicated to the pursuit of cold hard cash matters not too much at all. However the difference between a well educated Italian and a well educated American has been up till now the power wielded by the two nationalities. Americans in the "Heartland" who vote and make their opinions known have had far more influence unintentionally it has to be said, on world affairs than any Italian voter has in the Italian hinterland. And being a leader in the world demands a certain level of education. The difficulty lies in how to explain to a machine tool operator in Little Rock why he needs an understanding of Islam when he is unlikely and unwilling to travel further than a dollar and the English language will carry him and his car. And yet he it is who has the ability to help elect the Most Powerful President in the World. An Italian voter gets to elect the leader of a third rate world power with an Army capable of nothing more than posturing.

By dint of powerful political manhandling Americans think they are threatened by Al Quaeda in Afghanistan and the best response to the threat is to go to war. Certainly Al Quaeda brought the war on themselves with their murder in Manhattan but by now the moment seems to have passed, Afghanistan which could perhaps have been retrieved with money and determination in 2002 now appears lost to the West. And the much discredited domino theory deployed in the Viet Nam era seems to be coming to pass in Pakistan a country toppling into nuclear fueled anarchy. Yet I would venture a guess that not one in a hundred Americans could point to Pakistan on a map or give even a brief summary of why India and Pakistan went into the disaster that was partition in 1947. And yet these voters decide the future, in abstract, of Pakistan. Or they would if democracy still held sway in our corporatist state. I'd like to think one could argue that with a better understanding of the world American voters could get angry enough and confident enough to oppose the corporate empire building. As it is the world is a blank slate and someone else gets to write the future of the planet in that space. And then they ask me, why do I tilt at windmills on my little blog? Because I say, otherwise my head will explode from too much thinking. I blame all those essays by reactionary Jesuits in the 1850's with forcing me to think about the reasons for and meaning of the relevance of history to today. I love history enough to know that I want to keep it in mind long enough.

I saw this sign on the barracks wall at Auschwitz I when my wife and I were in Poland 15 years ago. We went to bear witness to something that has all too often been denied as irrelevant and too far in the past for consideration today. In twenty years I hope I will be here and still able to say I saw the crematoria, I saw the ovens, I saw the tins of poison gas. I do not wish to forget my history.


Singing to Jeffrey's Tune said...

Fair enough. Agreed. How shall we begin the education?

Conchscooter said...

I don't know everyone's path is their own. I guess pick up an intriuguing book and start from there. The funny things is there are tons of biographies and history books being written and discussed. The people that aren't intrigued by the past are the ones who get to vote anyway.
I got into history because it was there and the present was so miserable for me. It reassured me to know people were miserable in the past too.

Danette said...

Very nice-- and very thoughtful. Me thinks it's time for some champagne (drink of choice at our house). Cheers!!!

Anonymous said...

Pardon the interruption....was the March 6th Tort Reform post lost? It seems to have blended with the Rock Bottom essay. Yes?

Conchscooter said...

Rob- I try not to think like that but your comment accurately reflects the state of mind of the young people I work with.
Danette - I don't think of drinking champagne often enough, but I am off this weekend so who knows i might get decadent.
As to the previous essays they look okay on my page.

Jack Riepe said...

This post was masterfully written. And thought provoking.

Jack Riepe
East Goshen

Anonymous said...

Regarding the March 6 post again....not to belabor the issue. Two titles #1)Tort Reform and directly below it #2) The Need To Hit Bottom have the same text. Knowing your penchant for orderliness is something amiss? I'm interested in the Tort Reform issue and its impact.

Conchscooter said...

Thank you Anon for your persistence. I must have transposed the wrong copy from Key West Diary where I first posted this essay. I thought rthe perspective presented was interesting but let me add that since then the President has added tort reform to the health care package. Maybe. We shall see of course. Health care reform seems to require all the parties, doctors lawyers insurers and hospitals to blame each other. Single payer would remove the doctors from the equation.

Conchscooter said...

riepe : you freak me out when you write stuff like that.