history is not bunk

It was the first day of grade five. My history teacher wrote on the black-board in big, bold letters,

HISTORY IS BUNK.

Here is the source of the quote.

Say, what do I care about Napoleon? What do we care about what they did 500 or 1,000 years ago? I don’t know whether Napoleon did or did not try to get across and I don’t care. It means nothing to me. History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s dam is the history we make today.

Henry Ford, 1916 interview with Charles N. Wheeler for the Chicago Tribune

My teacher went on to explain that history is not only NOT bunk, it’s vital to understanding the present. It is also a guide for discerning right and just action for the future.

Fast forward a few years, and I was choosing History as my major study. Liberal Arts was often looked down upon as “lesser than” the more empirical scientific studies . It was Artsy Fartsy. A self -indulgent pursuit of knowledge with no practical use unless you became a teacher.

I beg to differ.

In a recent conversation with our younger son, he bemoaned the way history was taught when he was in school; focused on memorization and regurgitation of names, places and dates. It was not only boring, he said, it was indoctrination. Agendas wrapped up in seemingly indisputable facts. It would have been more valuable if the focus was less on details and more on the meaning of past events.

Our conversation then moved on to philosophy and the importance of logic. We agreed that rational, critical thinking should be taught at an early age. How do you judge a source? How do you test an argument? How do you spot the fallacies in a heated discourse? Logic should be a compulsory course in High Schools and Universities, regardless of your area of studies.

The Enlightenment era glorified human reason and the pursuit of knowledge. Today, belligerent voices fill the airwaves. Academics and intellectuals are mocked as elites. Rational dialogue is increasingly unattainable. And, the blatant ignorance of history is not only sad. It’s terrifying.

The lessons of two World Wars followed by the Cold War years are forgotten. Nationalism is on the rise, threatening to destroy the ongoing work of international cooperation and unity in Europe and across the Atlantic.

White supremacy and racial intolerance is coming out of the shadows. Hatred gains courage when like-minded leaders support it, and good people remain silent.

An increasingly mad, unhinged, egomaniacal president rallies crowds of blind followers, feeding them lie after lie. Repeat the lies often enough and loudly enough, and they will be accepted as facts. Individual thought and critical thinking isn’t needed when the great leader is your sole source of truth. George Orwell’s dystopian “1984” is unfolding before our eyes.

Winnipeg is home to the Canadian Museum of Human Rights. The purpose of the museum is to “enhance the public’s understanding of human rights, to promote respect for others and to encourage reflection and dialogue.”. Historical displays of past atrocities are a sombre reminder of humankind’s capacity for evil. As you begin your journey from the roots of the museum, the architecture wraps you in darkness. Slowly you move toward the light at the top of the museum, the Tower of Hope. There you find a display of human rights work around the world.

I follow the Auschwitz Memorial on Twitter (@AuschwitzMuseum). It’s a difficult follow. They regularly post photographs and short biographies of men, women and children who were killed in the death camp. One person wrote that he forces himself to stop scrolling, look deeply at the photo and say the name out loud. It is a simple way to remember.

Lest We Forget.

Never Again.

4 thoughts on “history is not bunk

  1. I agree. History is NOT bunk. If more people knew history, we would likely not repeat the same stupid mistakes over and over. Here, in the States, 1984 has come to life, and it’s terrifying.

  2. You and your son are so piercingly right. History, logic and, two other values clearly described in your post but not named explicitly – discernment and compassion – are the elements that constitute civilization, community. While a “Catholic education” implies a particular bias, never the less its tradition placed a high value upon these elements. It’s beauty is/was that intimacy with Church can yield a love for it that is the irresistible impulse for reform. This, to me, is the biography of Pope Francis I.

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