Everyone Their Own Historian


If you are reading these words, would it be safe to assume that you like history? After all, to reach the point of seeing these very words it might be fair to guess that you went looking for something history related. Perhaps you specifically were looking for The History Rhyme (if so, thank you). Perhaps you had heard about this blog second-hand and it sounded interesting (in that case, thank your friend for me). Perhaps you merely were, like a surprising numbers who have ended up here, searching online for the phrase “history does not repeat itself but it does rhyme” (if so, thank you Mark Twain – or perhaps whoever first attributed those words to him). Perhaps you are a professional historian who has a research trip to some archive planned for next month. Perhaps you were trained as a historian (doctorate and all), but are not working in academia now. Yet, even if you neither have a doctorate or are make your living delving into the past, you probably share with me a strong intellectual curiosity for the past and how that can affect our present and future. In short, you like history. If so, then you are well aware that we are not in the majority. This edition of The History Rhyme will address our minority status, the main reason why I think so many feel so poorly about “history” as a subject and some thoughts on why those history-haters do not really understand what history is and thus don’t understand that they are mistaken in their opposition.

I may be taking some liberties, but I imagine that everyone reading this essay will have met someone who said something like “Ugh! I hated history in school. It was so boring and useless. I was glad when I didn’t have to take that again.” There are blogs on the Internet devoted to a loathing of what most people perceive as “history” – the rote memorization of dates, people, and events. Of course, we know that history is much more than memorization of dead American presidents (or vice-presidents if you are into that sort of thing – I am). We also know that the way history is presented in many schools is not ideal for fostering the love we share for the past. It is formulated for mass consumption in an assembly line fashion that would make Henry Ford and Frederick Winslow Taylor proud. It is often taught by men and women who are urged to teach so students pass mandated tests (that are used to determine school funding) instead of teaching for comprehension and appreciation of the links between the past and present. Of course, there are good history teachers out there who are doing the best that they can – please do not think I am putting all teachers into one category. Yet, even with the best teachers, many students end up learning a history that focuses on the who, what, where, and when of the past in order to pass multiple choice tests. From my experience, the first exposure by most people to what they are told is “history” is so negative, it turns many off from the subject entirely. This is a pity since it is not the who, what, where, and when that is what makes history so fascinating, but rather the why and how that many never get the chance to know.

The realization that many people dislike what they think of as “history” is not new. The answer on how to help people understand that they like history more than they think is also not new. While researching the history or people not liking history, I came across as fascinating speech that was delivered on December 29, 1931 in Minneapolis, Minnesota to the American Historical Association by its then-president, Dr. Carl L. Becker. In this speech, which he called “Everyman His Own Historian,” Dr. Becker offers his thoughts on the role of history in the lives of everyday men and women, and the role that professional historians need to take in making the past more relevant to the people of today. Becker asserts that, at its core, “history is the memory of things said and done” which he says “is a definition that reduces history to its lowest terms, and yet includes everything that is essential to understanding what it really is.” It is not necessarily the memorization of when the Magna Carta was signed and by whom (although it can include those things). History, in the broader sense, includes for all of us the events we did yesterday as we recall them today for use in planning our tomorrows. Dr. Becker is far more eloquent so I will quote him in length:

“… the memory of Mr. Everyman, when he awakens in the morning, reaches out into the country of the past and of distant places and instantaneously recreates his little world of endeavor, pulls together as it were things said and done in his yesterdays, and coordinates them with his present perceptions and with things to be said and and done in his to-morrows. Without this historical knowledge, this memory of things said and done, his to-day would be aimless and his to-morrow without significance.”

It is the job of the historian to help others to understand what history is at its basic form so they can then begin to appreciate how things further away from the day-to-day events of a person are also of value. However, while doing this, historians must appreciate that history is a topic for everyone and must meet the needs of Becker’s “Mr. Everyman” because, as Becker notes, “otherwise he will leave us to our own devices, leave us it be me to cultivate a special of dry professional arrogance growing out of the thin soil of antiquarian research” because “the history that lies inert in unread books does no work in the world.” In other words, boring and pedantic is not cool!

Reading the admonitions made by Dr. Becker over 80 years ago, it made me think about how my memories are a type of history. Perhaps it is not the history that will make it into books, but it is my history and it has some significance even if I did not know it until now. A specific example concerns the events around the holiday Americans will celebrate this weekend to honor those who served in the military – Memorial Day. Many people have specific rituals associated with this holiday and I am one of them. Specifically, I always watch the Indianapolis 500. I have done so as long as I can remember. So does my younger brother. At some point, I stopped and wondered why I did this every year. As a Mr. Everyman (or to bring it up to date, Everyperson) historian that Dr. Becker described in his speech, I did a little research and asked my mother when I started watching the race. She told me that I did so because my maternal grandfather, John Lee, liked to watch that race. My parents always took us to see him and my grandmother Juanita in Centerville, Iowa over Memorial Day. I do not remember watching the race with him since he died when I was only nine years old. However, I do recall visiting them and always going to visit the various graveyards in the area. I have memories of looking at the gravestones and seeing the various special markers placed for veterans of past wars. There were many that had “GAR” listed on them. I eventually found out that this stood for “Grand Army of the Republic” which was the name of the Union Army in the Civil War. From that spawned an interest in that part of the distant past that had a concrete impact on people that my ancestors had known.

So what do all of these memories of my past mean to my present and my future? Well, that is easy. On Sunday, I will continue the tradition of watching the race to which my grandfather introduced to me with my children. Then, on Monday, I will go with my mother and my son down to Centerville to see the graves of my grandparents as I tell my son of what I remember of them. History is alive, relevant, and never ending – as long as we truly understand what it is. Have a great holiday!

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