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As I was walking my grandson home from school he mentioned something about WWI and I asked him how he knew about WWI, his reply: “Because I am a history nerd. I study it whenever I can. I also know about WWII and The Korean War and The Viet Nam War.” He is 10. The apple does not fall far from the tree, his mother has a BA in History and I have a BA in Liberal Arts and read history text books for fun. I am passionate about history, I LOVE history. Some people can reel off sports statistics, or car changes and designs by year. I can run through the Plantagenet family tree, which is a complex tree with many broken branches and much inter-breeding. I think my passion for history and for politics are conjoined twins. One seems correlated to the other. Instead of spending my time at the gym on weight machines or Zumba classes I climb aboard the treadmill with my tablet and watch documentaries about history- the time flies by.

The similarities are striking and while my particular preference is for the Middle Ages of Britain I am also familiar with Plato and Socrates’ discussion of the four regimes that exist in reality and tend to degrade successively into each other: timocracy, oligarchy (also called plutocracy), democracy and tyranny (also called despotism).  This is a repeating pattern of civilizations. However, as my Western Civilizations professor warned us, “History doesn’t actually repeat, it is more of a variation on themes.” In other words, there will never be another Henry II versus Thomas a Beckett but the betrayal of a trusted friend is an oft repeated story. This is why I enjoy studying history, to learn about the trials and tribulations of people who have come before, their failures and successes, ‘if only...’, how do the results of the past affect the actions of the present. Do we learn from history, yes, sometimes I think we do. With the plethora of sources of information available to us today we can glean wisdom. This is why there is currently a debate in the US about what should be taught in schools, some would like our children to only see our past as a Grimm’s fairy tale of moral lessons where everything turns out ok. I hope we can see how that may not be a healthy way of learning about our country. We need to know ALL of our history, the good and the ugly so that we can understand each other.

The Plantagenet’s were the ‘reality TV’ of the British Middle Ages. To get a wonderful view of life as a member of the family I suggest, “The Lion in Winter” with Katherine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole, this family could have used the services of a family counselor as they define ‘dysfunctional family’.  Henry II was the patriarch of the Plantagenet family, his sons are part of one of the most familiar fairy tales and several movies- Robin Hood. While good King Richard is off fighting the Crusades, little brother Prince John is terrorizing the kingdom. As a result of John’s bad behavior two things happened- there has never been a King John in the British family since his death and Britain has the Magna Carta which is the precursor to our Constitution. Not directly, of course, but the Magna Carta is the tiny seed planted in the minds of people as an idea that there can be rule of law and that leaders are not determined by a god but should be elected by people. It is a long, bloody and convoluted path from there to our Constitution. If you enjoy watching the shenanigans of the Kardashians or the Housewives of various counties I think you would also enjoy the mischiefs of the War of the Roses. These people took their roles as leaders as very serious business and oaths were not made lightly. A friendly business relationship with Henry IV did not entitle one to a similar successful affiliation with his brother, Richard III, in fact, you very well could lose your head. Perhaps that is the attraction of reality TV, we can watch and think, “At least my family isn’t that bad.”

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When we read the letters and writings of the past we see that the human experience is much the same, we are born into families, have relationships, have children, have jobs and make a contribution to our culture. It is those the contributions that transcend time and are still popular stories of today, like the influence John Locke had on our Founding Fathers.  They studied history and passionately discussed and struggled to create a document that could withstand the test of time. They were well-read on the events of history and dared to dream of society that could be fair to all citizens, unlike what they had experienced. True, they did not include women and Blacks, that is a job they handed to us. They knew that as perfect as they attempted to make the Constitution, changes would need to be made over time and gave us the tool of “Amendments”. Viewing the amendments we see how omission on their part created a need for changes on our part, some changes were good, like Emancipation and some were bad, like Prohibition. We learned from past mistakes. Amendment is a noun that means: 1. the act of amending or the state of being amended. 2. an alteration of or addition to a motion, bill, constitution, etc. 3. a change made by correction, addition, or deletion. Change is not a bad thing- it means recognizing a problem and correcting. The Founding Fathers expected us to do this. “Let us provide in our constitution for its revision at stated periods. What these periods should be nature herself indicates.” Thomas Jefferson.

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When my daughter was in college I confess that I would read some of her text books because they interested me, for example: “Slavery By Another Name” by Douglas Blackmon. Did you know that slavery did not end with the Civil War? I did not until 10 years ago. I thought it ended and the slaves were free and they got land and a donkey and everyone lived happily ever after, well, that’s what my high school text book told me. That isn’t what happened. Slavery remained in a different guise, as Jim Crow Laws, until the Second World War when we needed more live bodies to fight. That is when we started to give Black men the ‘opportunity’ to serve their country. Because we don’t learn the beauty and the ugly of our history many White people like me were surprised when we learned that our first Black president was not going to be given the same respect as our other White presidents. Now we have people wondering why Black people are angry- because they weren’t taught honest history, that’s why.

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“History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon.” Napoleon Bonaparte. Those writers have primarily been men; white, Christian men. As women have continued to fight for equal rights, and I do mean continue because we are not equal yet, (although we have come a long way) more literature, art, books and writing by women has come into the public arena. No longer does a woman have to write under a man’s name, George Sands, and we are now free to read works written by women. We can attribute discoveries by women to them and not a male acquaintance, like the discovery of the first complete ichthyosaur & plesiosaur by Mary Anning. Because of dedicated female scholars we continue to unearth works about women, for example, the Gospel of Mary, which has been excluded from the bible. 

Currently we are trying to convince young women to seek education in STEM; Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. If we wish female students to pursue this they need to understand from history that our grandmothers and great mothers were not allowed to pursue these subjects, many were not even encouraged to seek education. I have one daughter with a BA in History and another daughter with a BS in Bio-Med because they both pursued their passions and were not told that they could not, they learned from those around them (aunts who are engineers) and from accurate and honest history that females are qualified to study in any subject.

I applaud groups that are guiding women to STEM careers, and I am glad that the leaders in Silicon Valley decided to convince schools in California that every student should undertake advanced math- we need people trained in these fields for our technological future. We also need students to understand history so that they better guide their designs, inventions and studies to include all people. We should not be pursuing engineering studies to the exclusion of the arts and humanities we should be educated in all branches of study. We need engineers who understand the past as much as we need teachers who understand science. History is a compliment to education, it enhances our life by teaching us that while humans have failed we have also succeeded. The saga of the suffragettes is the saga of many groups who are discriminated. Learning the reasons behind the French Revolution enhance our ability to understand the importance of participating in our government. The lessons learned from WWII teach us the danger of discrimination. Reading about the Fall of Roman and the Decline of the British Empire are cautionary tales about over reach of one country over others. We need to learn these things so that we can arrive at the polling booth with an understanding of the potential for bad decisions by unqualified candidates. I hope I have inspired you to read about history, that is not just about remembering dates, but about what we can learn about our past to create a better future.

Deborah Baron

Deborah Baron

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