History, Geography, and the Importance Thereof

For some people, the entire premise of this blog is already working against the grain.  History, everyone’s least favorite subject in high school and college, the source of endless lists of meaningless facts and dates, has long labored under a near universal belief in its irrelevance and potential to suck the very soul from those unlucky enough to be stuck listening to a disheveled and dry as dust professor hold forth on the subject of Revolutionary-era widget production in the tri-state area.
I’d like to make a startling claim here though, and state that, despite everyone’s objections and their reflexive urge to flee the room when someone starts talking about the Civil War or the Industrial Revolution, that almost everyone I have ever met appreciates and enjoys history.  Let’s clarify something here; “History”, as it’s taught in a classroom, is not what I’m talking about.  That is history that has been neutered by standardized testing and, as a result, lacks context, immediacy, and relevance.  The history that matters to us are the topics and events that we draw inspiration and insight from, and this type of history can be found in any human activity.  Two examples....

  • Do you like cars?  I’m sure you could tell me all about various years and models of your favorite manufacturer and wax poetic over the cars that you have owned or wanted to own and the individual history’s of car companies, as well as your own personal history, seen through the lens of your relationship with your cars and car culture.
  • Do you like sports?  You could probably supply a list of statistics from previous years and talk about the great players from years ago that were on your favorite team.  Again, this is history, though a very different perspective than the one that you probably received in high school.  You can’t be a fan of the Yankees or the Cubs and tell me that the history of those teams does not play a huge part in their cities history, and the lives of the people who live and have lived in Chicago and New York.
We could do this exercise again, and again, and again and we would keep coming face to face with the fact that history, dull, dry, boring old history, is an inescapable, fascinating, and totally unintended by product of simply living our lives.  History is an inevitability of the human experience and by appreciating it, even a small piece of it, we are connected to the lives and experiences and events of the cities and people that we find ourselves surrounded by.
If I could, I would suggest a small shift in perspective.  History, as it’s generally taught in school, is necessarily “macro”, it deals with the big events that affected millions of people.  It’s impossible in a classroom setting to embrace the massive, unbelievable complexity of even a relatively small and unimportant town.  But if I could, if I had one ounce of persuasive ability or skill, I would suggest that history is more important on a “micro” level, the level of the individual, and of the family or the community.  Look back into your family, ask a grandparent where they grew up, where their parents grew up, and then connect the dots in your own life.  Learn about your town, or the old building you drive by every day, take time to read the monuments that are on nearly every street corner in America’s cities and try to see what happened, and is happening, every single day that goes by.  If you can find the spot where you fit in, where your personal history connects with a larger historical event, what made your city or town what it is, where your family came from and what they did in order to get you to where you are today, I promise that you’ll have a new appreciation for history. 

Geography is underrated these days, which is a darn shame.  The way in which we live our lives hasn’t helped our understanding of geography either, with the world coming to us via television and the Internet and most travel occurring within the glass, steel, and climate control of a car.  We all know there are hills between Oakland and Walnut Creek, or that there are redwood forests along Highway 1, but these statements don’t mean much to us since we remain essentially separated from them, zipping along and casually glancing at the world out the window.  
    It’s an unfortunate set of circumstances that we find ourselves in.  We are of the world, but not in it.  We are isolated from the physical realities of our lives and can, very easily, be simply shuttled from warm, dry place to warm, dry place.  But, people will argue, that’s one of the implicit promises of the modern age, that I won’t have to struggle for months across the Great Plains and can simply fly to Kansas, or fight my way up and down every damn hill in San Francisco just to get to the grocery store.  However, I’d like to make an argument for getting out and struggling up the occasional hill.  Want to get a real feel for what the lay of the land in your neighborhood is like?  Ride a bike or walk for a couple of weeks.  Your local geography will take on startling new dimensions.