Whenever I tell people that my primary interest is history, I typically get one of two responses: 1) What are you going to do with it? And 2) History is boring (or some variation thereof). Often the sum total of historical knowledge they possess, or what they think is historical knowledge, amounts to bits and pieces of knowledge from high school exams. Worse, those bits and pieces are often wrong.
This sad situation has lead to innumerable hand-wringing and finger-pointing on the part of the academic and intellectual elites on the subject. We are a TV and internet loving generation that hates knowledge, goes the cry. Things were better in my day, one will exclaim, when everyone was a scholar or at least respected scholars (yeah, right, but that’s another issue). Now, we are witnessing a generation bereft of historical knowledge. And so on and so forth…
I myself used to think along those lines. I blamed poor teachers as well as antiquated methods and books. If only it were explained properly, people would flock to history classes and lectures. If only we dropped the pretentious and entirely unnecessary academic language and stopped looking down on writing “popular books”, history would become popular again.
Here’s the thing I’ve only recently come to realize: The reasons I just gave above are BS. The lack of interest in history has a lot less to do with a different generation and a lot more to do with our lack of understanding of why most people learn history. Why is this the case? It’s simple: The people who answer the “why learn history” question are almost always academics or intellectuals whose lives are entirely dedicated to the written word. For them to explain why the man in the street should learn history is equivalent to, say, the Brisker Rav explaining to your average Dati why one should keep Mitzvot. Such people have no conception, or at least respect for learning that is not for its own sake, in specific fields and according to specific methods.
More than that, historical knowledge is far more widespread than people realize. Yes, most folks don’t really care for “drums and trumpets” history or literature. However, in their fields of interest, people are no less “historians” than university professors. Don’t believe me? Check out the historical discussions or knowledge of, say, sports, comic books, fashion etc. among laypeople on the net. You’ll often find a vast degree of knowledge and accuracy that equals if not surpasses many academics.
Clearly, then, people do learn history – perhaps in different fields, but they still learn. Also, it’s important to remember the phenomenon of people who brush up on their history later in life, either after they have a secure job or once they retire. Check out any lecture or trip and you’ll see at least a few people who are not only learning history but also lived history. It can take the form of “roots tours”, “country tours” or just a desire to embark on self-exploration.
So why the huge gap between the perceived lack of historical knowledge and reality? More on that next post.