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Essay: History at Age 13


In his recent young adult book, "Just Fly Away," (and in our interview about it) Andrew McCarthy wrote about that pivotal age, when you just want to know how your life will turn out.  Lake Effect essayist Jim Spangler thinks it’s important to consider history through the eyes of someone who can appreciate the passage of time:

If the study of economics is called the dismal science, the study of history must run a close second. According to the American Council of Trustees, history is so dismal that only 18% of colleges require a course in either history or government.

For those of us graying at the temples, government and history courses were like going to the dentist, there was no escape. For me it was Civics in 9th grade, U.S. History in the 11th, World History as a senior and Western Civilization as a college freshman. All required. How about you?

Maybe it doesn't matter if today's students like the old Sam Cook song "Don't Know Much About History." Henry Ford would have agreed with Sam when he famously said, "History is more or less bunk."

Others see it differently, Will and Arial Durant, among the pre-eminent historians of the 20th century, said the study of history becomes, "A celestial city, a country of the mind wherein a thousand saints, statesman, inventors, scientists, poets and philosophers still live and speak. And most importantly they still teach."

Admiral Hyman Rickover, father of the nuclear submarine fleet, said it in less philosophic terms, "You have to learn from the mistakes of others. You won't live long enough to make them all yourself."

I caught the history bug from Mr. Phillips in high school and Professor Alston at the University of Iowa, and I've been its student ever since.

In my opinion, history gives perspective and helps make some sense out of the unpredictable and sometimes often insane events of today. I hope I can make it your opinion, too.

So, are you saying history repeats itself? No, not according to the Durants. "History repeats itself only in outline and the large," they said.

So, think of some of the hot button issues of today. Let's see if history can give us guidance.

If you didn't know history, you wouldn't know that many presidents had a rocky relationship with the press. Nixon and the press absolutely hated each other. Lincoln endured newspaper cartoons depicting him as an ape. Lyndon Johnson faced a "credibility gap" with the press openly accusing him of lying over what he claimed was progress in the Vietnam War.

If you didn't know history, you wouldn't know that tariffs, that is the taxing of imports to make them more expensive, have always been controversial. In 1833 South Carolina threatened to secede from the Union, not over slavery, but over tariffs. Many economists agree that the Smoot-Hawley Tariff of the 1930's deepened the Great Depression by practically destroying internal trade and the American jobs that went with them.

If you didn't know history, you wouldn't know that almost all presidents have had trouble with their subordinates. Eisenhower had to fire his chief assistant, Sherman Adams, for taking gifts in exchange for government favors. Earl Butz, President Ford's Agriculture Secretary, was forced to resign for telling a racial joke to, of all people, a group of reporters. During Warren Harding's administration, his Secretary of the Interior, Albert Fall, went to prison for taking bribes from oil companies.

Now, let's relate history to people, not people in general, but to you and me. My wife says 35 is the perfect age, old enough to know what you're doing and still young enough to still do it. Nobody says that about age 13. Do you remember? I'll bet you do, painfully. Just like me. The awkwardness, the trauma, the discomfort of trying to figure out young adulthood. Every day seemed rudderless, a sail into uncharted waters. At age 35, you and I had personal history to draw upon, at age 13 - none.

It's no stretch I think to compare age 13 to a person with little or no historical background. The historically uninformed have not "been there done that." They have not "seen this movie before." They are left to be historically perpetually 13 in all of its awfulness.

So, what's the answer? Granted, history doesn't repeat itself, but try this - if your historical appetite has ben whetted, buy a history text book and read it, then give it to your kids. If it's a good one, let me know, I need to read it too. And after all that, maybe, just maybe you and I will all have a little more prospective as we read the news stories of tomorrow.

Lake Effect essayist Jim Spangler is a retired newspaperman who now lives in Brookfield.

Jim Spangler comments on the life experiences we all share, drawing on a 40-year newspaper career in Human Resources and labor relations, following a business degree from the University of Iowa and a stint in the Marines.