Tragedy in Charleston…Division is Destructive

YOU KNOW, what strikes me with this latest tragic shooting in Charleston, is that while the US media has been preoccupied with the high profile psychological problems of two individuals (Bruce Jenner and Rachel Dolezal), we have been neglecting the core principles of what makes America great. It is our heritage of honor, dignity, respect, morality (hard fought for during a bloody Civil War), and, most importantly, fear of God and His Law, regardless of ethnicity, that has made and can make America great. Bluntly, our professional media is divisive and destructive. Respectful coverage of the lives of the individuals lost in this recent shooting will be neglected for political aims (as we lead up to a campaign year), and skewed for various agendas. Tragedy of loss of life, compounded by the tragedy of division.

As a student of history it is not impossible to understand that what happens when a society is riveted by its rifts and hatreds, its criminals, and its moral inadequacies. We can look to the debauchery of Rome as it slid into oblivion to see a case study for lost focus. America is great because it is full of regular folks, being regularly law abiding, and caring about their neighbors, regardless of ethnicity. Millions of immigrants from various backgrounds have come here to become “Americans.” Some came by force, some came by choice, but without that coalescing of identity into “American” – we will become stressed and fractured by division, hatred and violence. America is framed by a set of laws, a Constitution. Back in the day, a constitution was what we called our human frame, our bodies. If you don’t have a body of laws that frame our society, that protect the individual and define respect for same, we have nothing, we simply have to wait for the “strong men” who want a piece of the action to hack away through violence and intimidation so we can pay for the pleasure of not being killed. Am I being extreme? I think not…please refer to recent coverage of the Middle East and the rise of ISIS.

ABRAHAM Lincoln once quoted this simple statement, “And if a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand.” If you want to quote Lincoln’s source, see the book of Mark, chapter 3, verse 25.

If we continue to feed on divisions, to disdain the beauty and mechanics of law abiding, and to neglect the value of life, our house, our nation will fail. If by chance, we can summon the courage, by the grace of God, to reject division and those that feed on it, to treasure the Divine intelligence of Law, and to respect life…we might, might have a chance. The choice is ours.

Value, and keep thinking history! For we are living tomorrow’s history today.

– Amanda Stiver

Potholes and Pitfalls: The Bumpy Roads of History

“That’s how history works. The mundane things often times become the measure of a civilization.”

AFTER A month of tooth-jarring journeys over the pothole infested roads of north eastern Ohio, I’ve decided that there must be a lesson of history here. Surprisingly, there is one and not very far off.

Roads are, for the U.S. and much of the developed world, a thing to be taken for granted as they are so ubiquitous, but not always was it so. Smooth, or relatively smooth, asphalt and concrete rivers of traffic flowing across the face of the land are a product of the past century. Before that waterways, railways, and dirt tracks were the cross-continental lanes of locomotion.

What does it mean to us when road begin to degrade? Is it just an annoyance – or are there deeper implications?

Unrepaired and unmaintained roads, like wounds, begin to fester. Traffic slows, the spread of goods slows, more repairs on trucks – the price of milk at your grocery store goes up. But ultimately, it is indicative of the state of finance and stable government of any given nation. Maintenance is a strong indicator that a nation is functioning well, while disrepair suggests that dissipation, internal problems, and debt are pulling the focus away from these boring, but vital details. When Rome was falling, its roads descended into disrepair and then disuse.

THAT’S HOW history works. The mundane things often times become the measure of a civilization. Will it continue in good health or collapse in the shadow of a coming power with more nefarious and darker motivations? How many times has history repeated this scenario?

Never forget that though we may study the past – we live in history right now!

Keeping thinking history!

– Amanda Stiver

At A Glance: The Wonders of the World Almanac

“Why do I love my World Almanac so? Because I can flip pages, take in a quick dose of information and add that to my appreciation of the world around me.”

Image: Amanda Stiver

Image: Amanda Stiver

IT TOOK me five years to buy a new one (a lapse of sanity, surely), but just the other day I purchased a copy of the The World Almanac and Book of Facts 2015. Now, at my fingertips and within a scan of my eyes is a mountain of interesting facts, statistics, and history that would take me hours to compile looking through Wikipedia or any of its iterations on the Internet.

Why do I love my World Almanac so? Because I can flip pages, take in a quick dose of information and add that to my appreciation of the world around me. It is a fast way to build my knowledge base. A base of information that goes into the scaffolding of my mind and allows me to understand and analyze trends, motivations, and history being made as we speak. Scope is the old fashioned word people used to use to describe this, or even “a wide knowledge of the world.” You get that from books like the Almanac.

TRIVIA. A lot of people think that’s what a book like the Almanac is for. But isn’t life really about the “trivia”? The little things that happen each day make up what become the trends of our lives. So, trivia, factoids, added together make history!

Speaking of history, the Almanac has a great review of world history in it’s “World History and Culture” section. If you need to build a timeline of history in your mind, and you find yourself frustrated when you can’t place this event or that one into perspective, then this brief review is very useful. Read it through, commit the different eras to memory and suddenly, seemingly random events that are going on in our violent, tragic, chaotic world right now will begin to make sense. (On a related note, reading the Bible with a similar mindset will also help to put the craziness of the world in perspective as well.)

THE ALMANAC makes great light reading or a handy reference tool. Add it to your arsenal of history, for personal learning or teaching. Not even the Internet can beat it for quick reference and a fast overview of a subject. One of those old school triumphs that never goes out of style! Keep thinking history! – Amanda Stiver

The Best Book of Biographies: Great Lives, Great Deeds

“We were knowledgeable enough to verify our information, reverent enough to respect the deeds of a hero without trying to deconstruct his every molecule, and still innocent enough to believe in heroic, altruistic, moral duty. We don’t live there anymore as a society and it would benefit us to look back at some of what was good about that era.” — Amanda Stiver

hat and artifacts on map

Image: Amanda Stiver

HAVING taken a break from talking history for a while, I come back in the midst of missing Malaysian airliners, war in the Crimea, tensions in the Israeli corridor, tragic shootings on a U.S. military base, ongoing economic sticky-messes, inept political leadership, earthquakes in California and Chile, and buffalo running a-muck in Yellowstone National Park… so more of the same, only different.

As always, or this site wouldn’t be called “HistoryGal,” I tend to look back to get a little perspective on the future. One of my favorite sources (parents and home-based teachers, this one’s a great resource) is a chubby collection of biographies by that superb purveyor of condensed books of old, Reader’s Digest. Titled Great Lives, Great Deeds it contains over 80 short biographies of famous individuals.

True enough, modern scholarship may make some of the information outdated, but generally the basics are accurate. Remember that all history rises and falls on the bias of those writing it, even current authors.

WHAT I love most of all about this book is the stirring way in which history was written. I consider it the golden age of American historiography (mid-20th century). We were knowledgeable enough to verify our information, reverent enough to respect the deeds of a hero without trying to deconstruct his every molecule, and still innocent enough to believe in heroic, altruistic, moral duty. We don’t live there anymore as a society and it would benefit us to look back at some of what was good about that era.

Of particular note in Great Lives, Great Deeds are the biographies of American revolutionary heroes. The account of Paul Revere, “The Midnight Rider,” by Esther Forbes is stunning. An excerpt, like much of Reader’s Digest material, it is from a larger work I have not yet read, but plan to. A very short sample:

“They who had so recently seen the stocky, benevolent old gentleman walking the streets of Boston could hardly have guessed that he was destined forever to ride a foaming charger, his face enveloped in the blackness of a famous night, to become in time hardly a man at all–only a hurry of hoofs in a village street, a voice in the dark, a knock on a door, a disembodied spirit crying the alarm–an American patriot who, on a moonlit night in 1775, started out on a ride which, in a way, has never ended,” (Great Lives, Great Deeds, Reader’s Digest Association, 1964, pg. 272).

THIS kind of history moves, the writing has electricity and it stirs us to greater devotions of our own, whatever the cause is to which we are devoted (we all need one by the way, preferably a good one). This kind of stirring writing is not unlike the Bible accounts of the great heroes, and sometimes anti-heroes, of the Israelite world and environs. When most people think of the Bible, they think of stories (hopefully not films like the recent non-version of Noah) and characters. This one did this deed, that one fought that war, this one stood up to this dictator, etc…

I like to talk about gateways to history. Interesting ways in which we can pique our curiosity and gain an appreciation for and desire to learn from history. Biographies are a fantastic gateway. They give you enough of a story flow to sink your teeth into, while still filling in historical details of one era or another that by the end of a biography you will find that you are somewhat of a burgeoning expert on a small section of the historical timeline!

SO if you can find a used copy of Great Lives, Great Deeds to add to  your shelf (it is out of print) then do so (it also makes a great bathroom reader). There are many other historical characters of note to get acquainted with like Winston Churchill, Simon Bolivar, Edith Cavell, Booker T. Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, Patrick Henry, George Washington… and many more.

Find a copy and make an exploration of history, person by person.

And as always–keep thinking history!

– Amanda Stiver

The Window of History

window

Image: morguefile.com/hamper

Sitting in my office I have a great view of the woods. I can see birds, cats, deer, my neighbors, lush deciduous trees, the change of seasons and the occasional fox or raccoon. My view out the window is never the same twice. It can be similar, but never an exact copy. A leaf moves, the clouds are different, the dappling of sunshine through leaves changes, and different creatures troll the yard.

I never get tired of peering out that window to see what’s below. Such variety is refreshing and I often turn to look out when I get filled to saturation with staring at the computer.

Window of history

In the same way I never get tired of peering through the window of history. Okay, sometimes I do get tired of the same historical subject. So I solve the problem, I rotate subjects. On the whole, though, I don’t get tired of history. I find that a trip back in time via a well written history book helps me to see the present more clearly.

According to the StrengthsFinder program this is a particular trait called “Context.” StrengthsFinder is a workplace personality testing program that helps users find out how to use their strengths in connection with others.

Context is the use of a knowledge of history to see how that past shapes people and events. The ultimate goal being to anticipate what may happen in the future. According to StrengthsFinder it is also a way of relating to other people by empathizing with how they came to be the way they are.

Thus history becomes a window into not only the past, but also the future.

Back to the future!

I have been on a recent stroll through the boulevard of history, peering into various centuries and cultures as I go. It’s really a form of historical tourism, only you learn stuff and don’t pay as much as you would for a third-rate hotel room assigned to you because of over-booking.

Since the beginning of the year I’ve been to ancient Greece, the American Civil War era, the Revolutionary War era, and I’m just beginning a look into the history of the City of Jerusalem. Each book is a window, allowing me to see into the past with an eye open to the potential of what may come in the future.

What have I learned?

People haven’t really changed much despite centuries and millennia of existence. The window dressing may be different, but human motivation, greed, lust, anger, jealousy… are still the same and they still are at the crux of what turns the tide of world events.

So what window of history will you peer through today? What will you see and how will it affect your understanding of the present and the future?

Keep thinking history!

– Amanda Stiver

The Boundaries of History: Mountains

(Image: Amanda Stiver)

I’m watching a storm break over the Bitterroot Mountains. It’s a spectacular show of grays, blues, greens, and a touch of white off and on. Almost as spectacular as the sunset I watched over the same mountains a few days later. I live in the Midwest in a house among grove of trees and I rarely get to see a solid sunset, just a tint now and then, so watching the mountain version on my visit to Montana was worth the wait.

Mountains. What can I say about them? They are solid, craggy, and looming. They get in the way, they make people go around them and occasionally, they spew lava and pyroclastic muck.

They also make history. For without mountains, the conflicts, borders, traditions, and cultures of our human history would be something completely different. If it were plains all the way around, history would probably look like a glorified game on a chessboard.

(Image: Amanda Stiver)

Kings and their armies would charge across and gain a few miles, and then the opponent would charge over and take them back. Like an endless replay of the trenches of World War One. It takes a lot of manpower and materiel to gain and hold an indefensible flat space. It’s harder to take a mountain fortress, but easier to hold it.

Mountains have shaped us. Mountains and rivers and plains and valleys and oceans. They still shape us.

“And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings,…”

Food for thought.

Keep thinking history.

– Amanda Stiver

Wall Drug: An American Experience

I’m back in one of those tourist haunts that helps define the geography of my life. That sounds a lot more romantic than it is. I’m in Wall, South Dakota, at Wall Drug, a strip of western themed tourist trap that is a true tribute to the effectiveness of billboard advertising.

(Image: Amanda Stiver)

When Ted Hustead and his wife moved to the town of Wall to operate their drugstore back in the 1930’s, they latched onto the idea of using billboards to advertise their wares to weary and thirsty passing tourists. If you have ever taken Interstate 90 across the state of South Dakota, you know what I’m talking about. You can establish your relative location in the state by the sheer number of “Wall Drug” billboards that stack up in herds along the freeway.

Selling the goods

The funny thing about it is that it actually works. After 1,200 miles of seeing Wall Drug signs, people become, quite naturally, curious. Even people like me who have driven these roads to see family so many times I can watch the scenery (or sometimes lack thereof) pass through my visual memory with my eyes closed. Familiarly provides no immunity to the lure of Wall.

(Image: Amanda Stiver)

I think this is because Wall Drug, despite all the tourist adverts and schtick, provides things that tourists naturally crave – restrooms and cold liquids and ice cream. That and a nice bookstore and some quality western art. It also provides the myth of the west, with wooden cowboys and gamblers lurking in the halls of the indoor street. The complex has grown over the years, but the core is comfortingly familiar.

My last visit was 15 years ago, and by and large it remains the same. Families roaming the halls, ice cream in one hand, camera in the other. People taking a pit stop before continuing on to Mt. Rushmore or the Badlands. Just as I did on my visit years ago I bought a book, a definite step up from my initial visit when I was small and craved such sundries as cute little dolls dressed as western characters.

Questions raised

There is something plaintive, too, about a place like Wall. It raises questions: How long will tourism last in a tough economy? How long will we even recognize the quaintness of such a place? What does the future hold for a country whose younger generations know only a caricature of the history of the American West?

(Image: Amanda Stiver)

Maybe part of the answer is in that history of the peoples whose collective experiences made the West great. Where ideals of hard work, faith and justice, side by side with hardship and struggle fill in the spaces of the Western Myth of gamblers, claim jumpers, and outlaws.

If you’re in South Dakota and need a cool drink on your parched journey, stop at Wall and contemplate these questions and maybe you’ll be the one to find the answer.

– Amanda Stiver

I Beg of You… Don’t Hate History

Let the following numbers sink in and then I’ll explain why they’re horrifying…

(Image: Morguefile.com)

— A mere 20% of American fourth-graders (~10-11 years old) passed a National Assessment of Educational Progress U.S. history test with a “proficient” knowledge of their country’s history.

— Only 17% of eighth-graders (~14-15 years old) tested proficient.

— Worst of all, twelfth-graders, seniors in high school ready to go to college and become registered voters at 18 years old, scored a horrendous 12% proficiency (Stephanie Banchero, “Students Stumble Again on the Basics of History,” Online.WSJ.com, June 15, 2011).

I cannot number the times I’ve heard the now familiar statement, “Well, I hated history when I was a kid, but now I’m that I’m older, I’d really like to learn about it.” Followed by, “It’s probably because I didn’t have very good history teachers in school.”

I can’t fix the latter, which is the quagmire of our educational system dictated by politics. I can address the former; indeed I feel I must, so dangerous is this crisis.

I have but one life to give…

(Image: Morguefile.com)

Theoretically, 88% of American seniors know next to nothing about the country that gave birth to them, prospered their parents, allows their freedoms of dissent, and finally freedom to vote (or not to vote, as they wish).

88 per cent devoid of basic U.S. history knowledge! This is abysmal!

To me, as a historian, it is tragic because I love history, and my knowledge of the past lets me see into the future. Yet more fundamentally, I am appalled that our nation knows so little of its glorious, storied, sometimes dark, but often bright history.

It is tragic, too, because history is the fulcrum upon which our freedoms balance. Educationally speaking, math, science, and written word studies give us the means to improve our lot and style of life, but history hovers above, around, and beyond all that. History was passed on by word of mouth long before it was written down; it pre-existed and sustained those other disciplines. You can’t learn math if it is illegal for you to do so. History teaches us what is legal and what is not.

Most importantly, however, history preserves our knowledge of what freedom is. Without that, any dictator can come in and trounce us into submission. Without understanding the history of their struggle for freedom, any people can and will become the servant rather than the master. They no longer value what generations before fought and died to give them. They no longer value the representative government, the checks and balances, the useful traditions that give us identity, freedom of expression, freedom to meet together in peace, and freedom to transact government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

(Image: Amanda Stiver)

The Scottish Declaration of Arbroath says it this way:

“It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom—for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.”

Give me your tired, your poor…

To know history is also to learn compassion for those who suffer because so much of human history is suffering. It is to hear the cries of hungry children during the Great Depression, waiting for food that would not come because no food could be bought because no one had money and no jobs were to be found.

It is to hear the weeping of mothers whose sons died at Lexington and Concord, and at Gettysburg and Antietam. It is to see the fire fall from the sky as American soldiers invaded the coast of Normandy and made bombing runs deep into enemy territory over Germany to defeat the Nazis during World War II.

It is the struggle of pioneer families who made the hard, unrelenting trek across the American West to find a better life, full of greater promise and a more abundant future for their children and generations to come.

Learn to love history…

These low scores are simply one of the signs of a greater malaise in America right now. It will take us some doing to get out from under its apathetic and dreary spell.

(Image: Morguefile.com)

I’m prescriptive by nature, and every problem has a solution. I can’t think of a better way to illustrate how history should be taught, and how to find the stories hidden amongst the dates, battles, and personalities than to recommend the following clip of Andy Griffith teaching a history lesson. It is classic and unparalleled. It is how I see history when I read it – full of life, full of great causes, full of heritage.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aGXCH7zBdc4

In my next post…

I will concentrate on ways to re-invigorate a personal and family love of history with book and magazine recommendations and other ways to make history approachable. Man or woman, parent or child, young or old it is essential to find a way to learn U.S. and World History, and to learn to love it… stay tuned.

– Amanda Stiver

Life goes on… and so does History!

History is like that. One day you can’t get enough of WWII culinary skills, Ancient Greek composting, or the Thirty Years War and the next day… nothing!

Historical curiosity travels in phases. While a particular subject can really never be worn out as an area of study, it can wear out in our minds. We get sick of hearing, reading, or thinking about it. At that point some even give up on history (even us nerdy historian types!).

Fear not! It isn’t necessary!

I will call this (since I’m writing here) the Law of Historical Opposites. It’s actually more of a technique, but “law” sounds more impressive.

Flip your area of interest. Love Prairie Cooking in the American West, but are sick of recipes for Johnny Cakes? Try reading about Native American tribal history or the manners and customs of the American East or of Colonial California!

Have always liked the interminable accounts of the WWII European Front action, but simply need a change – then search out Pacific Front histories or leave WWII altogether and pick a different war. Humans being what they are, there will never be a shortage. Or, the ultimate flip, search out the history of Amish and Mennonite pacifism!

Keep it fresh, and you will always stay curious!

– Amanda Stiver

The Book: History or Religion?

Today at sunset begins Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement for the Jews, followers of Judaism, and for a few Christians who recognize the call to convene on certain feast days found in the Old Testament scriptures – texts multiple millennia old.

(Image: Amanda Stiver)

In this increasingly digitized world where daily billions of bits of information are finding their way to the computerized version of a warehouse we tend to lose sight of our old friend the Book. Kindles, iPads, and eReaders of various brands are marching onto the print battlefield and squaring off against the age old codex. The convenience of downloading your library instead of driving to it seems ready to overwhelm the more basic, tactile experience of opening a book.

The old fashioned way…

Yet codexes, and their scrolled predecessors, are the life blood not only of history but also of religions.

Many religions have specific holy books and texts. Buddism, Islam, etc., but the one most famous to the English tongue is the Bible and its King James translation. A work that not only influenced Protestant Britain and later America, but the very fiber of the English language.

Holy or secular?

When does a book become holy, and at what point is it too holy or too religious to be considered an accurate source of history? Evolutionary anthropological theory would have us dispense with such sources as nothing more than a stage of development in which human origins are gussied up in mythical explanations.

Yet religionists demand that a text like the Bible be accepted as the very word of God. So, where do we start? Do we deny the existence or use of these resources, some thousands of years old, as off limits to the study of history? Do we take only these printed words as truth?

It’s basic really. If you want to know the plot of a mystery, do you stare at the cover and try to summarize what you think the author might have written? Or do you crack the cover and do the simple, intelligent thing and read it?

Read it, of course…

“And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying:

Also the tenth day of this seventh month shall be the Day of Atonement. It shall be a holy convocation for you; you shall afflict your souls, and offer an offering made by fire to the LORD. And you shall do no work on that same day, for it is the Day of Atonement, to make atonement for you before the LORD your God. For any person who is not afflicted in soul on that same day shall be cut off from his people. And any person who does any work on that same day, that person I will destroy from among his people. You shall do no manner of work; it shall be a statue forever throughout your generations in all your dwellings. It shall be to you a sabbath of solemn rest, and you shall afflict your souls; on the ninth day of the month at evening, from evening to evening, you shall celebrate your sabbath.” – Leviticus 23:26-32, New King James Version, The Holy Bible

If you celebrate the Day of Atonement may your observance of this historic day be filled with meaning and purpose.

Amanda Stiver