"He instinctively can find the shining greatness of our American culture and does a good job of highlighting it (although he also does have those rare lapses when he writes about hockey, but that is something caused by impurities in the Eastern waters or something)." Erik Keilholtz
Under the patronage of St. Tammany
Mark C. N. Sullivan is an editor at a Massachusetts university. He is married and the father of three children. Email
What history we know we often judge as illiberal, forgetting we are the beneficiaries of past sacrifices and wealthy largely because of the toil of others who were far less secure. History is also not easy melodrama, but rather tragedy.
It was hard for women to be fully equal in the pre-industrial world of rampant disease and famine, when they had 15 pregnancies or so to ensure three to four children survived to keep the family alive. In the so-called intolerant past, 9 in 10 Americans worked on the farm until dark just to feed the populace; less than 1 in 100 do so now.
Before dismissing them as hopelessly biased, sexist, superstitious or prejudiced, at least concede that most of us sensitive suburbanites would collapse after a few minutes of scything, threshing, milling and baking to get our daily loaf.
To appreciate the value of history, we must also accept that human nature is constant and fixed across time and space. Our kindred forefathers in very dissimilar landscapes were nevertheless subject to the same emotions of fear, envy, honor and shame as our own.
In contrast, if one believes human nature is malleable -- or with requisite money and counseling can be "improved" -- history becomes just an obsolete science. It would be no different from 18th-century biology before the microscope or early genetics without knowledge of DNA. Once man before our time appears alien, the story of his past has very little prognostic value.
Finally, there is a radically new idea that most past occurrences are of equal interest -- far different from the Greeks' notion that history meant inquiry about "important" events that cost or saved thousands of lives, or provided ideas and lessons that transcended space and time.
The history of the pencil, girdle or cartoon offers us less wisdom about events, past and present, than does knowledge of U.S. Grant, the causes of the Great Depression or the miracle of Normandy Beach. A society that cannot distinguish between the critical and the trivial of history predictably will also believe a Scott Peterson merits as much attention as the simultaneous siege of Fallujah, or that a presidential press conference should be pre-empted for Paris Hilton or Donald Trump.
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Read this remarkable item about an academic historian who's also an Army reservist readying to serve in Iraq. Academia could use a few more good men like Chris Bray.