Time and Travel

I've been on vacation. My wife and I recently visited Europe. We spent a week in the United Kingdom and another in Switzerland. Our main attraction was Zurich, where our daughter attends graduate school.

Flying kites at Stonehenge.

Flying kites at Stonehenge.

Historic sites ran a close second, however, as they often do with historians like me. My longsuffering, nonhistorian wife took it in stride. The only time she balked was at Stonehenge. Not to worry. She reached into her backpack, pulled out a kite, and hoisted it into the air.

I wonder what other tourists thought. I wonder what the builders of Stonehenge would have thought. For all I know, they might have flown kites of their own.

Do you ever wonder about the past? Do you ever try to imagine what life was like for our parents, their parents, and their parents parents? If you do, you're part of a small and shrinking minority.

In a recent New York Times column, author Timothy Egan laments widespread lack of interest in history. Study after study bolsters his case. Egan mentions an exchange he had with celebrated documentary filmmaker Ken Burns. Burns claims that students nowadays often find "civics"—which tends to encompass history—boring or too demanding. As a result, many schools have either played down history or drastically reduced the rigor with which it's taught.

I appreciate Egan's point, but let's not indict American education in broad strokes. And let's not focus on education alone. A lot of influences are at play. Whatever the reason, though, lack of interest has diminished our understanding of the past and made life more tenuous.

How so? Those vacant stares I get when I mention the Civil War, World War I, and the Korean Conflict expose more than ignorance. They also point to frightening possibilities of repeating costly mistakes that claimed millions of lives in the past.

Equally troubling is our loss of certain crucial points of reference. Does it really make sense to compare the latest policy decision out of Washington, D.C., to Hitler or slavery? Do those who make such comparisons truly understand the untold human cost that both inflicted on the world?

Ignorance or sketchy understanding of the past invites manipulation, as Egan reminds his readers. Small wonder that one of the first things totalitarian governments try to control is institutional memory.

I could go on and on, but you get the idea: We do better as individuals and a society when we remember the past, warts and all.

So how do we get there? History needs to be interesting. History as a discipline has roots in storytelling, and those who deal with the past need to remember those origins. All the better if the stories are vivid, concrete, and three-dimensional.

One of the best ways I can imagine of sparking positive feelings about study of the past is the hands-on approach taken here at the San Joaquin County Historical Museum. I invite you to check out our Web site and explore the many programs the Museum offers for young people. These include Valley Days, Pioneer School Days, and From Farm to Fork.

Each is led by trained, dedicated, and passionate docents, many of them retired teachers gifted with the ability to engage students.

I can't guarantee that the attention of those students won't flag if they ever attend Stonehenge. Packing a kite might actually be a good idea. But I can assure you that those who attend one of the Museum's programs will go home with newfound appreciation of the past.

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