Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Is A Rudimentary Knowledge of Anything -- Especially History -- Really Necessary ?

Once, on a particularly bad-weathery bow watch on a well-outfitted full-rigged movie prop, a hand of the third watch, about fifteen years of age, grumbled to me in a cranky clench-jawed growl from under a miserably soggy rain bonnet:

"I really don't give a shit about this history crap."

The fact that under better conditions she looked a lot like Sarah Vowell, recalled in hindsight years later, is beautifully ironic.
That cruise included about two dozen of her peers, also in varying states of damp history-despising misery. We regular hands were all charged with training, so I guessed that it was up to me, as a history-minded officer (I think that was my actual title: ThirdMate and History-Minded Officer) to impart a little Love of History.
I ran through the old chestnuts: "If you don't remember it, you're doomed to repeat the mistakes of it." And, "This is your heritage, your history." As well as: "You're part of the great tradition of great women sailors. You remember the captains we've met, and the stories from training, that song about Jane Thornton and even the pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read." And still: "You're seeing things and doing things the other kids from Swansea never could." And, finally: "This watch is responsible for four hundred tons of boat and everyone and everything aboard until eight bells. That's our purpose. Act responsibly."
To which she answered: "It's cold, I'm wet, it's late, it's dark, and I have my period. So you go right on pretending that you're Captain StupidEveryBody's DeadAndWhoFuckingCaresAboutHistory or whatever because I just wanna go downstairs and go to BED!"*

Sometimes, when I see how the study of history is maligned and how much of history is simply ignored and forgotten, I hear a little of that exchange.
Like when I read something recently in the local paper about Friends Academy, past which I drive everyday, a school founded by Quakers almost 200 years ago, whose principles and history I admire. And I have friends who are alumni.
So when I read this sort of thing, I get urpy.

I know what you're thinking. "Thirteen 'colonies'? Weren't they 'states' by 1810? And weren't there at least seventeen states by then?"
Yes. The original thirteen colonies had declared their sovereign statehood -- one by one, until Rhode Island finally signed in 1790 -- under the United States' Articles of Confederation. No longer colonies, they were all states by 1790. And not to put too fine a point on it, Vermont, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Ohio became states before 1810. That's seventeen. States.
And, yes, I'm aware that some people still call the United States "The Colonies."
But I wouldn't be aware of that if I didn't give a crap about history. You'll probably notice the books over there. Mostly history. And that "old" feeling around the quarterdeck. What with the old fonts and all.
A little background in history is something that I thought would be a prerequisite for someone who has to write a clever and overlong "historical" intro to a piece that would be fascinating on its own merits, with a little information about a school that is a significant part of the culture of our region. Without hiding the lede under a few paragraphs of pointless filler.
Without identifying James Madison as a "fledgling."
Oh, wait: James Madison was the fourth president of our fledgling nation. I get it. Not "fledgling fourth president" of the nation.
That's what I mean. If it's your article, like your watch, you have to be responsible.

* Yes, I did correct her. "You mean you want to go 'below' to your 'bunk.'" And she did just that, shouting "Aye-aye, sir!" on her way. And I bet that she stopped in the kitchen before going to the bathroom, too.

1 comment:

Large said...

I wonder if any great people in history ever experienced this,..

Ptolemy's charges say to him :

Who needs to consider an arbitrary set of six quantities A,B,C,D,E,F that satisfy
the relation

sin(A)sin(B) + sin(C)sin(D) + sin(E)sin(F) = 0

I'm o.k. with not knowing if the earth is stationary or not,.I'm going to the chariot races...

Years later,..Columbus would remark to his third mate,..."Ptolemy who ? as he searched the stars to find out where he was,..and where he was going..

"Perhaps it is not fair to call Ptolemy's system a theory to explain so much as a highly ingenious and successful system of mathematical analysis to locate planets. From that viewpoint it is, was and always will be a triumph, because it was absolutely successful for over a millennium and a half. Greater accuracy made it, as a system of mathematics, useless." -http://jolomo.net/solarsystem/1936.06.html