Whenever debates flare up over what should be taught in American schools about America’s past, a dusty old book comes to mind, Mary G. Kelty’s Other Lands and Other Times. Published in 1942, its subtitle, Their Gifts to American Life, indicated that it would put America in the context of continuity with a great past. It became a standard textbook even in one-room schoolhouses in rural Pennsylvania, and it covered world history from what was then called the Stone Age to the settlement of Asiatic peoples throughout North America. Its simple prose, maps, and illustrations of ancient and medieval times, as well as India and China, conveyed a sense of gratitude for the rich inheritance that made America possible.
Most students in those one-room schools went on for further study, going beyond the eight grades one teacher, usually female, had to keep in line. Whether in high school or college, they learned more about American history as part of a larger heritage. Some studied Latin, eventually encountering the histories of Cornelius Tacitus, a Roman senator who flourished in the decades on either side of the year A. D. 100.
Not for beginners, Tacitus’ Latin, especially in his Annals, employs an intensely concise style, often cynical and ghoulish. In Book 13 of his Annals, when describing how Nero delivered a funeral oration written for him by his old tutor, Seneca, Tacitus wrote, “Seniores, quibus otiosum est vetera et praesentia contendere, . . .” Which Michael Grant translated for Penguin Books, “Older men, who spent their leisure making comparisons with the past, . . .”
So, history is a hobby for old men. It is an intriguing question: Why are there no child prodigies in history? Never does one encounter a ten year-old who can do wonders with history the way one of his or her classmates can perform wizardry with the violin or with chess or calculus. There is the National History Day competition, but that variation on a high school science fair is for junior apprentices. Very likely, historians who have passed the half century mark will think back on articles they wrote in their twenties and wince.
Furthermore, there is an occupational hazard for historians. In the early twentieth century that great and dark wit, Ambrose Bierce, in his The Devil’s Dictionary, defined an historian as “a broad-gauge gossip.” Any historian is bound to pause now and then and wonder what constitutes genuine history and what qualifies as mere gossip, and how best to sort them out. Winnowing wheat from chaff is rarely as easy as it seems.
Some people claim not to be interested in history, saying what matters is the here and now. Usually that comment comes from someone who fancies himself a man of action, but who is basically intellectually lazy. History is about memory, and remembering can be hard and uncomfortable work. Historians must face facts, without fear or favor, and for that reason, in a socialist dictatorship, after members of the old government and then priests and religious, next against the wall are historians. Historians who survive become propagandists.
Words long attributed to King Solomon are forever true, that there is nothing new under the sun. Human nature never changes, and studying the past deepens a sense of fellow feeling for people long gone. Eric Sloane, an American artist who was noted for his paintings and pen and ink drawings of old barns and covered bridges in New England and southeastern Pennsylvania, once wrote that when he gripped the wooden handle of an old handmade tool, it was like shaking the hand that had made it and worn it smooth.
History leads one out of oneself into “other lands and other times,” trying to understand how people used to live and why they made the choices they thought were best. All the while, it remains important not to live in the past or bray on about how it was all so much better back then. A trip to the dentist will dispel that notion.
It might be nice to visit the past for a bit, but along with the nightmare of having a toothache in, say, 1900, there are other realities to consider, such as aromatic layers emanating from horses, coal fires, unwashed humans, and tobacco. If nothing else, the past was a smelly place. Along with Gilbert and Sullivan’s Lord High Executioner, historians tend to have no time for “the idiot who praises with enthusiastic tone/All centuries but this and every country but his own.”
As for Kelty’s book, it presents rather than praises, and in the early 1940s, it helped students see the background to the new war ravaging the world. Western culture was then under attack, as were the ancient cultures of Asia. From Mesopotamia to the Mongols to the Maya, Kelty made American students aware of a world-wide past.
With an allusion to Dante’s Divine Comedy, her history book began with a boy being lost in the woods. After several hours, his father finds him and takes him home, but the incident gave the boy occasion to think about how people in the distant past had to fend for themselves in equally forbidding landscapes. He soon saw that the comfort and security he enjoyed at home derived from countless generations of human achievement.
While the boys and girls who used Kelty’s book in school learned that lesson, it remains improbable that any of them then and there set themselves apart as a prodigy, as a latter-day Tacitus. Historians, like everyone else, learn by analogy. As Tacitus wryly noted, those old men listening to Nero’s (or, really, Seneca’s) speech amused themselves by comparing that spectacle with days of old, when emperors relied on their own eloquence.
Here is the spot to roll out the cliché about children lacking life experience. Kids can be diligent and single-minded collectors of data (coins, stamps, statistics), and they can even be most effective gossips. However, they tend to fall far short when it comes to analysis of facts, let alone hearsay.
More than their lack of cobwebby memories or their lack of skill at separating wheat and chaff, children lack that distinguishing trait animating Tacitus and those old men in Nero’s audience. As entertaining as the collecting and cataloguing of information can be, it was in the comparison and interpretation that those old Romans found fun.