History is a) dead

History is so last year. Or is it?

b) alive

History is so last year. Or is it?

May 08, 2009|By CHRIS COPLEY

A teacher enters a classroom, walks among students, touches or picks up objects, looks out the window and then leaves, closing the door behind her.

What just happened?

That little episode was history teacher Evelyn Williams' first lesson in how history is alive and personal. This was how she introduced history to a new class of students. After the walk-through, she had students write about what they saw.

"The results were amazing. No two reports were alike," said Williams, now. "Some kids saw an angry expression on my face. Some said the door slammed. Different kids picked up on different things. So what actually did happen? Was any one report right or wrong?"

The lessons: History is not old and dusty (and therefore boring); it's as current as what happened earlier today, yesterday or last week.


And the real surprise: There is not one version of history, but many.

Who cares about history?

Looked at from one point of view, history is everything that has already happened - all art, all science, all love stories, all pop songs, all wars, all sports events, everything.

But when people hear "history," they think, "the long-gone past," and people tend to be focused on the immediate, said Tom Clemens, history professor at Hagerstown Community College.

"One of the difficulties in teaching history is that the relevance is hard to see," he said. "When you're young, most of what you think about is what's in front of you."

Clemens noted that everybody actually uses historical information, but we don't think of it that way.

Maybe a guy has a date with a girl he doesn't know. He wants to impress her, but he doesn't know what she likes. So he finds someone who knows her and asks about her. That, Clemens said, is essentially historical research.

"When you drop it down to a personal level, people really do have a use for history," he said.

Learning from the past

Middle School students might not see it the same way.

Peggy Walsh teaches American history at Boonsboro Middle School. Sometimes, teaching history is a bit of a chore. It is curriculum content that must be delivered at a prescribed schedule.

But occasionally kids find history in their own lives.

"Boonsboro is a place where a lot of history has happened," Walsh said. "These kids have their backyards right on (Antietam) battlefield. The National Road (which passes through Boonsboro) was a key piece of our nation's transportation infrastructure. And every single year, kids tell me about a barn that they know about or their gramma's house that has secret compartments for the Underground Railroad. I'm just amazed."

Still, for many young people, history seems uninteresting and irrelevant. For them, history is not living; it's dusty, dull and dead.

"That's a struggle we have every year," Walsh said. "Thirteen-year-olds just don't have much interest in history.

Emphasizing the 'story' in history

Michael Kyne, curator of the Washington County Historical Society, said history is basically about stories.

"History is the story of people, the story of their past and where they're going," he said.

One way to tell the stories is to collect, preserve and display artifacts and documents. The historical society displays theirs in the Miller House in downtown Hagerstown.

"If you knew something about (people in the past) and had something from them, you preserve that history," he said. "If you don't have that tangible link, it's like it doesn't exist."

Kyne recommended saving items for future generations: photos with thorough captions and dates, items with sentimental value, written interviews with older family members.

Clemens said a written memoir of a special event is another good historical record.

"I have a niece who was hired at the new visitor center at the Capitol in Washington," he said. "On Inauguration Day, she was 40 feet from President Obama. I told her 'Write down everything you can remember about the inauguration.' Her grandchildren will be thrilled to read that."

History changes

Keith Snyder is a park ranger at Antietam National Battlefield near Sharpsburg. He said studying history is a great way to learn life lessons.

"You should study history because of the lessons learned from people and events," he said. "People don't change. Good leadership doesn't change. Those things that made the great commanders great doesn't change."

But Snyder added that history is about so much more than wars, elections and other big event.

"The worst thing people do with history is to focus on the dates," he said. "They need to focus on the human emotions, the human elements.

And history is changing all the time, Snyder said. At least, our understanding of it. Several times a month, Snyder sees someone at the visitors center at Antietam who is a descendant of a soldier who fought at the Civil War's bloodiest one-day battle on Sept. 17, 1862. Descendants bring letters, old photos or other records of their ancestor.

"This enhances our understanding of the battle and its impact on people. This makes it more real," Snyder said.

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