Hard to Understand Our Nation Without Understanding History

Posted on November 19, 2012

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What Do You Know? Part One (original title; title modifed a bit by The Tuscaloosa News, which published this op ed column Nov. 18, 2012)

Not too long ago while plumped down on the couch, just letting “Sixty Minutes” entertain me for a while, I heard David McCullough bemoaning the historical ignorance of the younger generation.

McCullough sighed that on a question on the thirteen original colonies some youngsters seemed to think the colonies occupied much of the continental United States—Massachusetts check by jowl with California for example, and others were unaware that they were all on the Atlantic coast.

David McCullough, a truly wonderful writer and historian of Americana, continues to be truly shocked by this woeful ignorance. As a somewhat jaded teacher, I’m not, but I should be.

McCullough and others have pails full of stories about plain bone headed ignorance of American history, not to speak of world or global history.

McCullough taught a seminar of twenty five students at Dartmouth (Ivy League, so by usual measurement, the gold standard of American higher education) and asked them who knew George Marshall.

Not one raised their hand. One suggested he was associated with the Marshall Plan.

In another national test—the one given regularly to immigrants seeking citizenship—Newsweek in 2011 found that in a random sample of 1000 adults, 29 percent couldn’t name the vice president, 73 percent couldn’t correctly say why we fought the Cold War, 44 percent were unable to define the Bill of Rights, and 6 percent couldn’t even find Independence Day on a calendar. I’d be scared to ask what they know of the Civil War, which produced more casualties—dead and wounded—than all our other wars combined.

I’m not going to repeat the many values of history to a culture and a people. Others, like McCullough, do it much better. See his Jefferson Lecture before the National Endowment for the Humanities given in 2003 for example. You can easily google it. It is an inspiring and sometimes shocking view what we know—or more exactly, don’t know—about history in America.

I’ll simply underscore the rather elementary fact that if you don’t know where you came from, you don’t know who you are, and, for sure, you haven’t the faintest idea of where you’re going.

I have been rereading a classic in American history—when not idling my mind for a few minutes in front of the boob tube—the biography of a man, and, really of a people, your ancestors and mine.

We tend to think that we came into this world fully formed, ready to do battle with the elements, feed and clothe ourselves, get educated, and go conquer the world. In fact—as my wife Louise and I were reminded a few weekends ago when we babysat our three month old godchild, Ashton Coker—we come into the world bare and helpless, and are totally and utterly dependent on our parents, family, or godparents as the case may be.

Edmund Morgan’s book, The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop, is about a man and a people—not quite like a totally helpless babe in a blanket–but pretty much starting from scratch in the wilderness of New England in 1630. It is the story, in fact, of some of our earliest English ancestors, what they brought with them, and what they established. And the roots they planted are very much part of our lives today.

Of course, there were other Englishmen already on the Atlantic coast of North America. You knew that, right?

Pocahontas’s friend and company down on the Chesapeake Bay? Their colony at Jamestown was so pitiful that when England’s great rival for power and empire in the Americas, Spain, sent a small reconnoitering expedition from Cuba to took a look at them, they returned and told the governor of Cuba, “no problem, they won’t last a year.” That was good intel but a wrong conclusion. That happens, even to good intel communities, and the Spanish had spies all over the Atlantic world.

But that’s not what drew me to the story of John Winthrop. I am working on a small book on what Scripture says about wealth, and John Winthrop came to New England on religious and economic grounds, and so anyone interested in the Bible/Scripture and wealth needs to examine Winthrop and his Puritans a bit.

I had read the book a long time ago, and to refresh myself, bought a used copy on amazon.com for a penny, plus shipping and postage of course. That’s a pretty good deal. John Winthrop would have approved of my thriftiness, and Ben Franklin, a late-blooming American of the eighteenth century, as well I suspect. A penny saved is a penny earned.

Winthrop came to New England to practice his brand of Christianity freely and to live out the covenant he and other Protestants of the Puritan disposition believed God had with his nation. In fact, as Edmund Morgan, the gifted and lucid historian who wrote The Puritan Dilemma, observed, “every nation or people, the Puritans believed, existed by virtue of a covenant with God, an agreement whereby they promised to abide by His laws, and he in turn agreed to treat them well.”

This was in keeping with the history of the predecessors of the Christian communities, the Jews or Hebrews of the Old Testament.

So, here I was, plunging back to the Puritans in search of what they thought of wealth, and then put into an historical time capsule and beamed back two or three thousand years to the times of King David and his covenant with his God.

Let’s break off here for the moment and simply assent to the conclusion that “hmmmm, history might indeed have something to say about us today.” Not that we are Hebrews or Puritans, but that both contributed to the streams that eventually fed into the making our great American river that we are today.

This column published by The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday Nov. 18, 2012

Posted in: History