I find their insouciance more than troubling. I find it scary. Right now the world seems nearly on fire, and enormous events, though dimly seen, are happening around us. Daily I find myself repeating what I once told my students: all of us will live to see the end of civilization as we know it today. They hardly flinched.
They should have listened. I wish I could go back the thirty years or so ago when I told them. They could hear, from their sheltered lives, how much has changed in what is really only a generation’s time span, and then they would hear, “I told you so.”
Now I wish that there were future history books we could study. Lacking that, I built a small mountain of history books with the hopeful expectation of some day reading all of them. So far, there has been little success, but I have a strategy to share that others might use it better than I have.
Somehow it works. Totally at random, I open a book somewhere in the middle, read a paragraph, look for a name or place I recognize as being important. It may take a couple of tries.
Then the index will tell me where else I can find other references. There will be probably be some, enough to fill what time I have available.
It’s like picking up a novel, and trying to understand it by beginning half way through. This strategy even has a name, in Latin, even: in medias res, literally into the midst of things. Some authors start their story in the middle of a plot and work backwards with flashbacks, knowing this device will gain interest. Your own curiosity will pull you in.
I opened “The Oxford History of the American People,” by Samuel Eliot Morison, in the middle. It’s a big book, four or five pounds of slightly yellowed paper, and a faded blue cover that showed a successful defense against the ravages of time. There were no notes inside, not even a name. Nowhere was there any evidence that since its publication in 1965 had anyone bothered to read any of it. The entire world had ignored this elegant work, but I could make it the whole world minus one. I opened it and started reading.
I recognized James Madison. I once lived in Topeka, Kansas, where the streets were named for Presidents of the United States, in order. Just by driving east to west, I learned the names and the order of the Presidents through Garfield, who was probably in office when the streets were named. I knew there was only one Adams Street, but I had to learn that there never had been a President Western Avenue.
So I dug into Madison, the eldest of 12 children and the son of a Virginia tobacco farmer. Yawn. Then it got interesting when I read how he met his wife, Dolly, a widow with two children. Social rules required a formal introduction, so he enlisted a mutual friend to introduce them, a man named Aaron Burr.
I had researched Burr when I was reading about Alexander Hamilton. Both men had their political careers cut short when Hamilton made unkind remarks about Burr, Burr challenged him to a duel (still legal and honorable in those days), Hamilton accepted, and Burr killed him. The only odd part of that was the while duels were still legal, there was a gentleman’s agreement to deliberately miss. Maybe the remarks were more serious than that.
The rest of my session involved looking up what I could find about Burr, until I ran out of time. But the study of history had not a dull moment. I look forward to my next opportunity, when I find who Burr will lead me to.
It is tragic to see the lack of interest in an important subject. The ideas of our early Presidents are still alive. Politics before the next election are about how big and powerful our federal government should be. Thomas Jefferson wanted a small federal government, while Alexander Hamilton wanted strong central power. I still wonder what kind of President Hamilton would have been, or Raymond Burr, who really wanted the job. We might be living in a different sort of country now, if Burr and Hamilton hadn’t decided to defend their honor with pistols.
We will never know, but isn’t it fascinating to ponder issues like those, especially when they still matter?