The past may be another country where things happen differently. Those things are amazing to explore. As history was made Wednesday with the inauguration of a new president, there also is continuity. Presidents have been inaugurated in January for almost a century now. No one knows where things will go and how the life of the country will play out, but history will be added to.
The beauty of history is in the many ways it can be researched, studied, seen and felt. History is about place. Robert Caro, President Lyndon Baines Johnson's biographer, speaks and writes so much about how the Texas Hill Country affected LBJ all his life in different ways and led him to the great decisions of his presidency. Anyone who walks Pickett’s Charge in Gettysburg on a hot summer day has some understanding of what took place on the last day of the greatest battle ever fought on North American soil.
History is about people. Mention George Washington’s name in small conversation and people will tell you what they know. Washington’s name evokes conversation about leadership and his name summons meaning.
History is about ideas. The main ideas of republican government and popular democracy are evolving, but they needed a place to start. Thanks to James Madison, one of the main architects of the Constitution, there was a firm foundation laid out for the country to begin with. Of course, the document was framed by many people with varied ideas. Those ideas came from different periods in history.
History involves the sweep of behaviors. What things were appropriate to do in what times and which were not. Behavior involves cultural norms, and culture and controversy also are part of history. Many times, this involves different cultures coming together for the common good amid a great tragedy or struggle. We are seeing evidence of these things with the debates over Confederate monuments and the rise of the Black Lives and Blue Lives movements.
Speaking of culture, studying the art, literature, sports, dress, language and symbols of a particular place, heritage or country can be great windows for understanding. Norman Rockwell’s "Four Freedoms" paintings help to see what goals the nation was aspiring to during World War II. Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” shows how the modern environmental movement began. The log cabin, native to Scandinavia, is an iconic American image because it relates people to the ideas of rugged individualism and the theme of the common man.
By studying the speeches and words of people living through their eras, one can feel the emotions in the great thoughts and debates of the time period. Words provide strength, comfort and hope at times. President Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, President John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural, the poetry of Walt Whitman and Robert Frost and songs like "Over There" offer the student or historian some context about a particular time.
The study of a particular era or theme in history gives people the chance at understanding which things went well and which troubles and challenges were left for later generations to consider. Looking into the past might help to understand some of the marbles in the bag of life in the present. History may provide courage and wisdom. It definitely allows people to dwell on the heroic. History almost certainly helps each person to see the power in his or her own stories.
History offers hope, too. As Americans, we can gather around the great accomplishments: the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, the arrival of the astronauts at the moon, and the rollout of the polio vaccine are just a few to consider. The opposite also is true. We can learn from great failures, like the times the country has gone to war unprepared and without a clear mission or when leaders have lied to the people when they didn’t have to and suffered the consequences.
History is about life and some of life concerns and "what ifs." A study of history looks at what happened and how it could not have happened. Those questions are important to ask.
William Faulkner, the great Southern writer, once commented, “History is not was, it is.” He talked about the past as not even being past. He sure was on to a few great principles about history and human beings.
We don’t study history because everything has been set in the history books. We study history because it is human and because it still moves, slowly and tragically, but also grandly, through era upon era. As people, we get the joy of studying it whether it moves us to joy or grief — and maybe even both.
How history will judge our time in it remains to be seen, but there is no doubt we all have a part to play.
Brent Tomberlin is a social studies instructor at South Caldwell High School and Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.