Friday, August 15, 2008

Our historical blind spots

It seems to me that each of us has a blind spot in our understanding of recent history that makes us unable to fully appreciate many of the most important lessons that are obvious to people even slightly older than we are.

Where did you learn what you know about big historical events, like Columbus' discovery of America or the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor? Mostly, you learned in school, augmented later with bits and pieces you picked up in references from popular culture, movies, documentaries, books or articles.  But when was the last time you formally studied history? For most people, it was high school or possibly a year or two into college. Very few people, even the most informed and curious, read much history after that.

Meanwhile, what was the age at which you started to pay serious attention to current events, by regularly reading a newspaper/magazine, watching TV news, or (these days) following a particular internet news source? Most informed people, I think, start somewhere between age 15 and, say, 25.

The trouble with history education is that it takes many years before the events can be put into enough context to write a worthwhile textbook. Not only that, but history classes are usually organized chronologically, which means that the most recent events are covered near the end of the class--often when there is a rush to wrap up everything.

The net result is that there is a significant gap -- a blind spot -- between the events you learn about from your teacher and those you ultimately learn about through personal experience by following current events. That blind spot, I figure, lasts anywhere from five to twenty years, depending on how up-to-date your text books were and how soon you started to pay attention to current events.

In my case, I know very little about the 1960s, and relatively little about the 1970s. They didn't teach me in school and I was too young (or unborn) to appreciate the daily news. I missed a whole bunch of important events: the Vietnam War, Watergate, the Apollo moon landings -- things that people just a few years older than me can remember vividly.

People born in the 1980s have a similar blind spot about the Reagan years, the end of the Cold War, and the first Gulf War.

If you were born in the 1990s, you'll need to work extra hard to understand Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, 9/11, Saddam Hussein. They won't teach you much about these things in school, so you'll have to pick it up from dinner conversations with your parents, or from explanatory paragraphs late into articles about something else.

I just finished reading a fascinating history book about the 1970's (I'll write more later) and I'm just amazed at how many of the mistakes people made then are being repeated today. It occurs to me that we make these mistakes because today's policy makers just weren't old enough to understand then what was happening and they never had the opportunity to formally study that period of history.  These are people who are very knowledgeable about the 80s and 90s (they were adults by then), and they know about the 40s and 50s too (because they did well on their history exams) but the in-between years are lost.

For example, I'm too young to have ever been subjected to the military draft, but I'm too old to have learned about it in school.  I can't even imagine what it would be like for the government to force an 18-year-old (boys only, not girls) to become a soldier, yet it was completely normal for people just a little older than me.  Those who studied it in school are, I bet, better prepared to discuss the concept than somebody with a blind spot like mine.

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