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Life as Performance Art

    For several years I was an adjunct college history instructor. On the first day of class, after the initial introductions and small talk, I would always ask for a show of hands from those who truly liked history.  If I was lucky, someone would tentatively put up their hand.  When I asked how many did not like history, the rest of them put up their hands.  Words like boring, useless, and a waste of time were mentioned.
    It turned out that what they students really disliked was memorizing dates and then making timelines. That has long been standard fare in most public-school classes.  I told them I agreed with them, adding that I could never draw a straight horizontal line, and that the intersecting segments became a muddled mess.  In essence, we were memorizing just the dates for a test that was really on the quality of our memory skills.  It became a matter of memorizing what we were to parrot back, passing the test, and moving on.
    I am half-surprised that some enterprising student has not filed a class action lawsuit for the trauma and abuse of having to make timelines. 
   To be sure, dates, places, and names of people are important. Far more important is making the connection and using one’s imagination.  Here is what I mean.  On June 18, 1812, Congress signed the documents to declare war on Great Britain, touching off the War of 1812. But what do most of us know about this war?  The British sent an army over here, Francis Scott Key wrote the words to our National Anthem, the British burned the White House, and General Andrew Jackson and his army stopped the British outside of New Orleans, just so Johnny Horton could make a fortune with his song, “The Battle of New Orleans.”   
    And there you have the timeline for two years, with all the little hash-marks for each event.  That is about as dry and dull as it comes. What makes this war far more interesting for us is when we start making the connections. For example, we went to war with the British because their warships were kidnapping American sailors to serve under the Union Jack.  It seems they were short of sailors because Great Britain was at war with Napoleon, and a lot of their fellows were getting blown to pieces or drowned, so they turned to a ready source of experienced sailors.  What rarely mentioned is that several weeks earlier the British Parliament had outlawed that practice,  but word hadn’t arrived in Washington DC in time to prevent the war.  On the other end of it, the famous Battle of New Orleans was fought about six weeks after the peace treaty had been signed.
     Suddenly, a dull study of the War of 1812, jumps off the page and becomes alive. That’s because we start making connections:  How the wars with Napoleon impacted this young nation on the other side of the Atlantic; how communications worked (or didn’t) when messages traveled only as fast as a sailing ship and a horse and rider; how the fight in Louisiana propelled Jackson into the White House a few years later. In time, that led to the founding of the Democratic Party.
    Want to take it further?  Did this needless war and senseless loss of life spur on inventors such as Morse to develop the telegraph, and the telegraph to encourage other inventors to move from relying on batteries to electricity?  We can look at how flintlock rifles and smoothbore cannons worked, how American volunteers were outfitted and trained, their food, their medical care, and what happened when they were discharged after the war was over.  Were there spies?  What happened to enemy soldiers who were captured?  Are there letters written from soldiers back home to loved ones?  Are there any veterans from that war buried in Allegan County? 
    In other words – a lot of memory work and obsessing over the neatness of a timeline is dry and dull.  Make it a bit of detective work and looking at the connections makes history far more interesting.  After all, the second syllable of the word history is story.  Research and tell the story, and we have something worthwhile.  It naturally follows that we’ll remember the dates of important events because we have a deeper interest in the subject.
     Fortunately, American has some very good storytellers who can transform timelines into something that fascinates us.  A little over a century ago it was Frederick Jackson Turner whose multi-volume saga of the American West not only told the history but explained some of the challenges faced by this country in the early 1900s.  More recently, David McCullough and Ken Burns carry on that tradition.
     Another is the late William Manchester who wrote extensive biographies of Winston Churchill, including The Wilderness Years.  The first chapter is not the dry time-line stuff, but the dawn of a new day and the early morning activities at Churchill’s home, Chartwell.
       .  Sometimes we find local connections.  On June 18th, the same day that we declared war in 1812, three years later in 1815, Napoleon was defeated in his final battle at Waterloo.  Had our war with England not come to an end in 1814, the next year whole British navy and army might have turned their attention on us, and we would be singing, “God Save the Queen” instead of “Oh Say Can You See?”
     Meanwhile, just a few miles from here, it was also the same day, this time in 1923, that a Kalamazoo auto manufacturer saw their first car roll off the assembly line.  It was the famous Checker automobile, a real gas guzzler, but the iconic American taxicab for decades.
     Just five years later, on the same date, Amelia Earhart was the first American woman pilot to cross the Atlantic from Newfoundland to Wales.  As for the local connection, a few years earlier she spent a summer at Saugatuck’s Ox-Bow Summer School of Art, later writing that she hated every moment of it. A true historian would ponder what might have happened if the food had been better, the mosquitoes less hungry, and the cots more comfortable.  A good storyteller would add to it and make it a fascinating misadventure and charge of careers. Might she have become an artist and dropped the whole idea of flying?
      It has often been solemnly proclaimed that people who don’t study and learn their history are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.  It’s probably true.  But it is true that those who don’t study and appreciate history miss out on a tremendous amount of just plain good clean fun.

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