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The value of learning history
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The most contentious historical question in the country is not a dispute over whether the United States is at heart a revolutionary or conservative force in world affairs, nor a conflict over how deep was Abraham Lincoln's devotion to the anti-slavery cause, nor even a battle over the origins of the Cold War. The most contentious historical question in the United States is over what history is -- or, more precisely, how long history is.
In one camp are scholars who basically agree the study of history should concentrate on what has happened in the past 2,000 years or so.
In another camp is a growing group of scholars and educational activists who believe history should be taught on a 14 billion-year scale.
History as viewed by David Christian, who teaches history at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, and holds a PhD in Russian History from Oxford, is history on an entirely different scale.
Its virtue -- and I listened to 12 of Christian's lectures before coming to this conclusion -- is that it puts history into perspective. It leads you to conclude that the co-evolution of humans and domesticated animals, including livestock -- the humans changing culturally, the animals changing genetically -- is a more important passage in human history than Watergate. It leads you to believe the appearance of agriculture only 11,000 years ago is a bigger oddity than the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939.
And critical to our own age, a slender strand of history, is the broader dynamic of climate change and how humans have adapted to it: with migration across the globe and with increasing impact on the environment, through, among other things, fire and farming. Wow. The debate over the Versailles Treaty sounds pretty peripheral in that context.
At the center of this view of history is Christian's contention that historians concentrate on a mere 5 percent of history because they examine the record of only written material and documents -- and because they wrongly believe not much happened in that first 95 percent: no novels, no symphonies, no documents hidden in pumpkin patches on Maryland farms or retrieved by Freedom of Information Act requests.
Christian disagrees. "A lot indeed did happen in the Paleolithic era," he argues in one of his lectures. "This was not a period of stagnation. Our astonishing creativity is already evident in this era."
Expanded history doesn't ask students only to consider the causes of the War of 1812, but also to consider why whales have thumbs.
And so, as we conclude our history lesson for today, let us recall and appreciate the motto of Faber College, the mythical institution from the film classic "Animal House": "Knowledge is good." Pretty much any knowledge is.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette,