One of my favorite websites I regularly check in with is the Wikipedia homepage. I jokingly made a comment this week that the “Did you know?” pane continuously sucks while the “On this day…” pane is usually always phenomenal. I want to be the person at Wikipedia paid to select which of the important anniversaries ought to be displayed on the home page. I would be awesome at that job. I’d even do the “Did you know?” section better, too. All this is to get to the point that I love reading the “on this day” section because I’m consistently surprised by shared anniversaries.
1789: George Washington is sworn in as the first President of the United States in New York City.
1803: The United States purchases the Louisiana Territory from France for $15 million.
1945: Adolf Hitler and his new bride Eva commit suicide in their bunker in Berlin.
1975: North Vietnamese capture the South Vietnam capital of Saigon, ending the Vietnam War.
Now, this morning’s confluence of events in my mind may not be all that poignant or mean anything at all. I guess you could make some argument for connection between the country’s first President and the Louisiana Purchase, which was viewed by many as a gross abuse of Presidential power; also a connection between the fall of the Third Reich and start of the Cold War, of which the Vietnam War was a “hot spot.”
I’m intrigued by the idea that somehow I can establish a connection to events that are not at all related in the firs place. In a way, it’s like a historical version of John’s “six random” posts on this blog — choose random events that share the same anniversary and somehow establish a connection. Maybe this is just an intellectual exercise or maybe this is minesweeper for history majors.
All of my middle schoolers (or most of them) seem to know the condensed soup version of the Santayana maxim that “history repeats itself” and use it as a reason for why studying history is important. If it helps them pay attention while we’re discussing something in class, then that’s perfect. However, I think this idea is too simplistic and somewhat unreliable – because history doesn’t repeat itself, history remains in the past and it is up to the individual to draw a connection between lessons learned and challenges faced. The idea that “history repeats itself” doesnt give enough credit to the subjectivity of historical interpretation. If we can say for the arts – in music, poetry, literature, film – that Person A is impacted this way and Person B is impacted this way and accept that, then shouldn’t history be the same way? In this way, the use of past events to inform present and future decisions is entirely relative and changes between individuals. Therefore, history is viewed through a million jaded monocles, as we strive to figure out what happened and will happen.
Now, the situation I’ve just described is in fact the way that history is viewed in academic circles. We will never know exactly what happened and therefore we rely on qualified historians to contend among themselves as to whose interpretation may be more valid than the rest. But the classrooms of schools across the world teach “the Louisiana Purchase was made on this day in 1803.” Some may say that students must learn ‘facts’ before they can understand interpretation; just like riding a bike, you have to be able to ride on two wheels before you can go fast or jump dirt piles or ride with no hands. Well, it’s impossible to teach all facts. It just is. But if we could focus more on teaching the process of historical interpretation, then you don’t need to teach all the facts. But I digress…
This started with the idea that somehow I can interpret random and unrelated events into somehow correlated happenings in history. Does everyone have a mind that looks for conspiracy theories? From my very very basic understanding of cognition, we all have files of knowledge in our brains connected and not connected. Does creating the conspiracy theory or random connection help speed up the connections between these files? Am I trying to create a false shortcut from Hitler to Vietnam and so on?
No. I don’t think I am. I think I just love history too much to avoid the question, “What about this?”