Jacque Marshall

My History of History

I've been thinking about this topic for a while, but this essay was prompted by a comment made by Tom Whitmore over on Making Light: "the way I was taught history in high school ... convinced me that I didn't like history."

I've been fascinated how my experience of "history" has evolved. My first memory of being "taught" history was when we did the Civil War in fifth grade. My teacher (who was otherwise generally clueful, so this puzzles me) "taught" the civil war by writing out the events (I presume; I don't actually remember) out on the blackboard in outline form, and making us copy them down by hand. This took place over the span of a couple of weeks or so. (This would have been in 1967 or '68.) I figure she presumed that, by having to copy everything, we'd be forced to pay attention.

What she failed to take into account was that, since we had to rush to keep up and get everything copied before she erased the board to start the next piece, we didn't have time to actually read any of it (having somehow missed the fact that words going through eyes != comprehension going into brain.*) (As it happens, I did actually infer a good understanding of outline structure, so it wasn't a complete waste of time, ink, and paper.)

Sadly, this experience also gave me the idea that I had no interest in history. Blessedly, the end of school, though, is not the end of learning.**

Fortunately, my brain knows better than I do, and as I autodidacted(?) my way through my adulthood, I began to pick up bits and snippets here and there, primarily through popular entertainment.

In a parallel evolution, it turns out that I also pay a fair amount of attention to artistic style, and can (when given sufficient exposure) often identify the artist (of music or visual work, sometimes even things like architecture) simply based on style. I can't often tell you the specifics of what I'm seeing that goes into that identification; this process seems to rely on data I've accumulated and stored outside of awareness.

But it turns out that one important axis of "style" is vintage. A lot of times I will guess the identity of a creator based on when a piece sounds or looks like it was made. Correspondingly, this has prompted me to develop a rough timeline of when various composers and artists lived. Which, in turn, has brought my attention to the cultural, political, and social influences surrounding those artists and their works.

Take, for example, the early 1800s book, Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen. I came to this through the 1995 film with Emma Thompson. Its place in history is multidimensional: the original piece, its modern interpretation, and my experience as a twenty-first century viewer.

Fairly recently, I became conscious that each chunk: each artist, work, style, culture, and event in history—each of these is a piece in the great grand jigsaw puzzle*** that is History. It's holographic: each piece you find and snap into place brings nuance and detail to the whole, and also elaborates every other piece. It's also a great, grand conversation, with each piece speaking to and about all the pieces around and before it.

I realized that, despite the best efforts of the American educational system, I find history fascinating. Because it's not really about "history" at all: it's about art, literature, music, perception, values, and human experience.

* The same fallacy drove those hateful filmstrips designed to speed up a student's reading by making them watch a projection where a window passed over the words faster and faster, missing entirely that that's not how speed-reading works. Reading speed generally increases (as I understand it) as one becomes able to parse larger and larger blocks of text at a gulp. These damn devices actually impeded parsing, being as you got to see (in the case of the ones I encountered) only one word at a time.

** During the 1980s, as I was learning how to learn, I amused myself by coming up with the aphorism, "Education is not a noun, it's a verb." I.e., it's a process and, optimally, it can continue throughout life. This was an important insight, because I came up in (towards the end of, blessedly) an era and culture when the prevailing idea was that you did all your learning in school, and then you were done, and went out to live your life. Which has never been true, but I've been relieved as our culture has progressively shed that idea.

*** And if it's a jigsaw puzzle, what are the "edge pieces" one uses to "frame" the "picture"? Turns out one of mine is empire waists in women's clothing. This evokes Josephine Bonaparte, which tells us that the era is around the War of 1812. We look up the publication date for Sense and Sensibility: 1811. Hah! We burnish our nails and feel smug: another piece slots nicely into place.

—13 December 2015

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Updated: Sun Dec 13 03:54:46 EST 2015