Don’t Know Much About History…

It was a lovely, sunny day in Connecticut today, and warmer than we had any right to expect, so I went out for a bicycle ride with some close friends. We got a little exercise, caught up, saw some pretty sights and soaked in some much-needed mid-winter rays – a treat all around.

During the ride, I spent a fair bit of time talking with an exceptionally bright and intellectually engaged young man, a fairly recent history-major graduate of one of our most prestigious colleges. As we rode through Old Saybrook, I told him about the Puritans who had settled the area, and of a nearby place where two regicides had hidden from English justice after the Restoration.

My young friend seemed a bit mystified by these references, so I gave him some of the broader context of the 17th century struggles between high-church Anglicans on the one hand, and the much more radically protestant Puritans (and other dissenters), on the other, as well as of the closely related struggles over power between James I and his son Charles I, both of them firm believers in the divine right of kings, on one side, and Parliament, ultimately led by Oliver Cromwell, on the other.

These struggles, as I recounted them in simplified form, eventually resulted in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which left Willam and Mary as joint holders of a diminished monarchy that had forever ceded the power of taxation to Parliament, and had given up on claims to the supposed divine right of kings, decisive steps on the road to truly democratic governance that were twinned with ever-more tolerant attitudes toward religious differences.

I hardly needed to point out that these struggles over governmental and religious authority were not only the cultural context of the original English settlement of this area, they were also decisive turning points in the evolution of our conceptions of individual liberties and democratic governance.

(I admit to having scrambled a few facts in my brief discourse to my young friend – confusing Charles I with James I and getting one of the dates wrong – and was spurred by my own jumbled recollections to go re-check my facts on the internet when I got home).

My friend was fascinated by our conversation and remarked that he was appalled that he had learned almost nothing about the gradual evolution of English, American and, more broadly, Western traditions of individual rights as a history major in college. Most of his courses, he said, were about whatever narrow interest his professors were writing about; he had been quite adept at acing those courses, but hadn’t emerged with any sense of the historical evolution or intellectual basis of our culture.

I could probably end the post right there, and leave it as a condemnation of the failure of our once-great colleges and universities to teach (even their history majors!) much about the origins of Western Culture, but instead I’ll tie that thought to another that I’ve been mulling over:

I don’t think people feel the need to actually learn as much these days as they once might have, and this is especially, but not exclusively, true of those who are credentialed as “educated” by our once-great institutions of higher learning.

After all, any facts that might once have had to have been committed to memory can now be accessed effortlessly on the internet. Just as, for many, the light pleasure of getting “friended” on Facebook by remote acquaintances has replaced the hard work of having friends with whom real time is spent, Google has apparently made knowing facts much less necessary.

It’s true, of course, that Google is an awfully handy source of information on things that we wonder about or only half-remember(!), but I wonder what it means that we need to commit fewer and fewer facts to memory. Presumably we have less factual context to be used in evaluating whatever we come across on a real-time basis. Paradoxically, as the information at our fingertips expands exponentially, the knowledge of the world that we bring to bear on the situations and ideas we encounter “live” shrinks.

Even more fundamentally, does our ever-increasing reliance on the internet as a source and repository of virtually all factual information impair our ability to independently process complex data sets, i.e., think? Maybe or maybe not in absolute terms, but it almost certainly fosters a sense of dependence on unquestionable Authority that dangerously relaxes the habits of self-reliance that underpin our notions of individual rights and democratic governance.

My young friend’s sense of disappointment about the broad historical contexts that he didn’t learn in college – but is reaching for now in conversations with friends and in his independent reading – and my worries about the atomization of knowledge and its residence on the internet rather than in our heads, are of a piece. Too many of us are living in smaller and smaller worlds, knowing less and less about both history and the real world, and as dependents on forces we don’t even try to understand.

Fortunately, we can still grab some friends, go outside, have some fun together and talk. And learn things – sometimes even with a little help from Google.


M.H. Johnston

2 comments to Don’t Know Much About History…

  • Doug  says:

    It sounds indeed like a casual and friendly ride. Unfamiliar post for you regarding your biking where the oxygen depravity and competition would ordinarily make the detailed discourse and reasoning almost impossible. Many four and even a five syllable word rather than grunts. Impressive. You’re mellowing.

  • DP  says:

    It’s unfortunate that he didn’t know the facts about the English settlement. But I think it’s misguided to blame his college. I learned about the Puritans in high school during my sophomore year at the same time as we read The Scarlet Letter and studied the formation of Rhode Island and Massachusetts. It was at an otherwise unexceptional MA public high school. We also read Thoreau, Emerson, Dickinson, Poe and Whitman. Much better than anything I studied at Exeter or in college. They aspired to loftier things. I think it’s a high school curriculum issue, not college.

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