Defining Moments: How language shapes our lives

How much do you know about history?

sprovost@thetribunenews.comJune 30, 2014 

Steve Provost

Apart from my wife, I have two great loves. Fortunately, she’s not jealous of either one, and the two of them coexist in blissful harmony — often hidden away in concealed corners of your local library or bookstore. Few people ever notice them, and fewer still go looking for them, which is a shame, really, because they’re both very social and they could use the company.

History and the written word go together like Scooby-Doo and Shaggy. During my college years, I even explored the possibility of majoring in history, taking so many classes that I nearly qualified for a minor. The past isn’t something that happened “back there,” something to be compartmentalized in a set of musty old tomes tucked away on some forgotten bookshelf up in the attic. It’s part of a continuum that includes the present and leads to the future. Our experiences in the past forged who and what we are in the present, and if we forget how we got here, we’ll wind up lost in the woods like Hansel and Gretel.

My father, a retired political science professor, told me he had once asked a group of college freshman what happened on Dec. 7, 1941. Only one or two could tell him the answer.

Many people don’t care about dates. I understand that. But even so, I can’t imagine that these young people had never been told about the significance of Pearl Harbor Day. They must have heard about it; they just didn’t remember it.

Perhaps it’s because they don’t find it interesting, and perhaps they don’t find it interesting because they’ve heard the soundbite version so much. “Yeah, yeah, yeah. The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor or something like that.” But that’s all they know about it, if they know that much. It’s presented as a generic “thing you’re supposed to know,” so they tune it out as though it’s white noise and they don’t retain it. Instead of memorizing it, they do the exact opposite: They forget it.

I can’t say I blame them. Our sound-bite society has encouraged us to tune out the boring and only pay attention to information we perceive as exciting and personally relevant. Naked facts are neither. A colleague of mine recently told me that the world’s most famous Latino writer had died. I was somewhat ashamed to admit that I didn’t know the man’s name and, as I write this column, I find that I don’t remember it. But I don’t feel ashamed now, because I understand why: The name was just an isolated piece of information, with no external point of reference. My colleague, by contrast, could never possibly forget the writer’s name because he has experienced his work and has seen its impact on the community at large. He took that external point of reference, and he made it his own. That’s what makes history, as they say, come alive.

One of our problems is we present history as something “dead” (or at least comatose), rather than making it relevant. We focus on the same subjects time and again: Pearl Harbor, Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, 9/11 and so forth. We hear them so often that they become little more than two-dimensional labels, and we seldom hear about anything else. Yet history is everything else.

For instance, did you know that Rosa Parks wasn’t the first woman in Montgomery, Ala., who refused to give up her seat to a white person? A few months earlier, a 15-year-old girl named Claudette Colvin did the same thing. She and three other women filed suit to end segregation. It was their court case, not the Rosa Parks incident, that led to the ruling that ended racial segregation on buses in the city of Montgomery.

I discovered that little tidbit while researching a book I wrote called “Undefeated,” about overcoming prejudice. This is the kind of information just waiting to be discovered behind the all-too-well-known facts that go in one ear and out the other.

In another conversation with my father, I told him a story I had uncovered while researching the book I’m working on now.

“You’ve heard of Griffith Park in Los Angeles,” I said, knowing that, as a former Southern California resident, he had.

He nodded.

Then I asked him: “Did you know that the man who donated the land for that park, Griffith J. Griffith, shot his wife in the head? Did you know he was sent to jail and, when he was released, the city leaders refused to accept his donation to build an observatory because they didn’t want to take money from an ex-con?” (The observatory eventually was built, but only because Griffith bequeathed the money to the city in his will.)

My father didn’t know any of that, but he said, “That’s fascinating.”

I thought so, too.

Not everyone will be moved to write books about history, as I have been. But everyone can appreciate it. History and language go together so well because both are all about context. Learning the names, dates and places without any frame of reference is like never reading beyond the title page of a book. You’ve got to read what’s inside for it to make an impact. The same thing goes for history. In our quest for instant gratification, we risk losing the richness, depth and humanness that make history so vital — in both senses of the word. And, like Hansel and Gretel, we ultimately risk losing our way.

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