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

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Invigorate Your History (And Your Family’s) Life!

Following on the heels of my historical consideration of Thanksgiving I’m back tracking to the topic of how to make history a part of daily family life (“I Beg of You… Don’t Hate History”– continued).

(Image: Amanda Stiver)

For those with a pre-existing love of history, this isn’t a problem, people like us discuss history all the time; family history, world history, military history, ancient history, etc.,… we have endless arguments about fairly trivial points of history. We (animatedly) discuss the number of soldiers under the command of a centurion in Ancient Rome – 100 or 60? (60 to 80 actually, opposed to the commonly assumed 100.) We argue about the way people dressed or the historically inaccurate firearms used in movies… and on… and on.

But what about the way people lived a mere two or three generations ago, how do you make that live?

(Image: Amanda Stiver)

I’ll cut to the chase… If you want to learn domestic history for the past 70 to 80 years you can read a few good books on various subjects, or a few dry textbooks that cover all of it… or… you can get a subscription to Reminisce magazine, Looking Back, Good Old Days or one of the other nostalgia periodicals and read compelling, quaint, realistic, snippets of life from the turn of the century to the present day.

I’m not shilling any of these publications I simply like them. They remind me of the stories my parents and grandparents told me about life in past decades. Reading about these people is far from the skewed social messages of neo-socialist-Marxist education materials, you get a sense of how real, ordinary people lived… and they have pictures!

The fundamental commonality of the stories in these publications is usually expressed in this way, “We were so poor, but we really didn’t know it, we had food from the farm, a home, and a loving family.” People worked hard and enjoyed the little they had. They had a sense of hard work, and hope for the future. They were individuals, but they had compassion for their fellow man and a duty to their community that can’t be legislated by a government.

(Image: Amanda Stiver)

I can’t recommend these resources enough. Some of the above publishers also produce compilations of articles based on various subjects, for example the Great Depression. They include photographs and short article stories that are a great read to share with young ones (did I mention the pictures?). Getting them interested in these very human stories is an effective gateway to a lifelong love of history. True history.

– 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

Time Travel: Indoor Plumbing

I don’t know about you, but I have often wondered what it would be like to travel back in time and live in a different technological era. See how each day was shaped and view the variety of daily activities.

Running water, electricity, public utilities, cars, and computers are merely a small sampling of things we take for granted, but which shape our day.

How often do we get up in the morning and use the fancy indoor plumbing that inhabits small rooms throughout our houses? Everyday, multiple times! But imagine how different the day would be if we didn’t have those small rooms!

Instead we would resort to a chamber pot or an outhouse, no plumbing. How about showering? Brushing teeth? No indoor running water – instead we would have a big tub, a stove to heat water on, and a pump outside that we would wrestle up and down whenever we needed H20.

You know the old phrase “draw me a bath?” Well, people literally drew the water up through the pump and lugged it to the tub. Life was work.

Here is the history lesson: don’t take anything for granted. Knowing the details of how our predecessors struggled to make a living keeps us grounded.

– Amanda Stiver

Collecting History: Old Sayings

Some people collect antiques. Some collect old cars. Many collect old books. There are innumerable items to collect and most often we associate certain things with history, like antiquities.

As exciting as ancient pieces of statuary may be, they are expensive, often hard to move, and quite frequently illegal to gather. I have a solution. It requires no storage, no expense and is, as yet, quite legal. I urge you then to collect old sayings!

These are the short pieces of advice that have been around for centuries. Some are extremely useful and some are not.

Here are a few examples (taken from Wise Words and Country Ways: Traditional Advice and Whether It Works Today by Ruth Binney and Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression by Mildred Armstrong Kalish):

Weather –

“Ring round the moon, snow soon.”

“When swallows fly low, rain is on the way.”

“Rain before seven, fine by eleven.”

Health –

“Sit up straight.”

“Eat your crusts – they’ll make your hair curl.”

“Chew each mouthful twenty times.”

“Put vinegar on a wasp sting.”

“Eat a peck of dirt before you die.”

Education, gab and whatnot –

“Improve your mind each day.”

“What’s on her mind is on her tongue.”

“She’s got a tongue that’s loose at both ends and has a swivel in the middle.”

“I’ll be with you in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.”

Kitchen –

“After melon, wine is a felon.”

“Don’t open an oven door while a cake is cooking.”

“Stew boiled is a stew spoiled.”

There you are. I’ve started you off with your own small collection. Add to it as you come by a funny old saying, factual or not. Listen for these from older family members and friends. If you don’t have access to these resources whose sayings will vary by region and nation, then look to books.

These sound bites are a direct link to history. They tell us how people thought in the past, what they believed, and how they acted. To keep the thread of history alive, start collecting today!

– Amanda Stiver

Founding Parents: Advice for a Nation

Reading about colonial life in America got me thinking about the founding fathers (and mothers) of the revolutionary period. I thought it would be interesting to examine a piece of parenting advice from one of the many individuals who, essentially, parented this country.

John Adams served as both President and Vice President of America in the last decades of the 18th century and early 19th. He had been a member of the Continental Congress and helped to write the Declaration of Independence. He and his wife, Abigail, both of Massachusetts, spent time on diplomatic missions to France. One of their sons, John Quincy Adams, also served as President.

I turned to my copy of Our Sacred Honor: Words of Advice from the Founders in Stories, Letters, Poems, and Speeches compiled by William J. Bennett (Simon & Schuster, 1997). The following quote, in a letter from John to Abigail, explains the expectations they had for their children:

“Human nature with all its infirmities and depravation is still capable of great       things. It is capable of attaining to degrees of wisdom and of goodness, which, we have reason to believe, appear respectable in the estimation of superior intelligences. Education makes a greater difference between man and man, than nature has made between man and brute. The virtues and powers to which men may be trained, by early education and constant discipline, are truly sublime and astonishing.”

“It should be your care, therefore, and mine, to elevate the minds of our children and exalt their courage; to accelerate and animate their industry and activity; to excite in them an habitual contempt of meanness, abhorrence of injustice and inhumanity, and an ambition to excel in every capacity, faculty, and virtue. If we suffer their minds to grovel and creep in infancy, they will grovel all their lives.”

“But their bodies must be hardened, as well as their souls exalted. Without strength and activity and vigor of body, the brightest mental excellencies will be eclipsed and obscured.”

Discipline your mind, use your intellect, exercise your body, and above all, value virtue.

Good advice for a nation, too.

The Internet: Research Tool

In my college days the Internet as a research tool had the reputation of a con artist heading up a charity. Academia didn’t like the idea of all that unsubstantiated “chatter” out there.

Well, times are changing and a little over a decade has given the Internet a sheen of respectability. It’s still a jungle of information but not a dead loss.

The Internet is a useful tour guide. With regard to history, Wikipedia and the like are a good starting point if you want basic information and are prepared to swim through a river of bias to get it. Encyclopedic sites that are reader-written have obvious problems – anybody can say anything!

Start there and move on to verifiable sources: books, official journals, news items (although, depending on source and with the political bias of many news sources, take them with a grain of salt), and official websites. Some of these are available on the Internet. And then there are story verifying watchdog sites (like Snopes) that come in handy.

Find the Facts

“Verify, verify, verify” is the catch phrase of Internet research. So much information, often self-published, is circulating that you have to consider it questionable until you have two or three sources to back it up.

If I’m trying to recall an historical event and it’s just barely escaping me, search engines can take the details I do remember and lead me back to the source. That is the beauty of the being online.

I’d like to say a word for online bookstores, like Amazon, and their review pages. Thrown in with the occasional crank are useful bits of information that may lead to another book or source of study.

Research on the Internet is still much like putting together a jigsaw puzzle with part of the information here, another fact there, mixed in with a lot of repetition, or on the downside, a bunch of lies.

Tread the river of information carefully, and be grateful we have the freedom to produce it!