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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Past Present

History Mirror

My sons were fighting this morning, as is all too often the case around breakfast time. Generally the almost 5 year old is the problem, being more fussy and demanding. But this time he was featuring his sweet side, which of course pushed the 9 year old’s buttons — feeling his younger brother was the beloved one, he needed to be the angry, mean, denying one. After the dust settled I went into Sasha (the 9 year old)’s room and we starting reading a graphic novel about the constitution. When it came time to explain why Am Rev happened, I asked how he would have felt if Rafi, his brother, had said "you can’t tell me what to do." "I’d punch him in the nose," Sasha replied. "So you are George III" — I said, to Sasha’s chagrin. And when it came time to explain Benedict Arnold and I asked if he’d ever felt unappreciated and angry, he said, "every day."
     The point of this little family story is that history is not about memorizing the dead past. Rather it is a way to see ourselves — it is dangerous, not safe. Because the more closely you study history, the more you see yourself, the more layers and complexity comes in both your self-understanding and your appreciation of the past. History is the record of human action, so it carries all of the traces of humanity. So when kids, teachers, parents say — history is boring, I cannot imainge what they mean. That is like saying life is boring, I am boring, self-knowledge is boring, tragedy is boring, comedy is boring, drama is boring.
      I suspect that for those who find history boring, the past is scarily uncertain — they have so little sense of what happened, when, to whom, and why — it is like being lost in a complicated map, or trying to read directions that really propbably only make sense in the original Chinese. Since the present is here, now, well, present, they feel they know their way around. The past is an assignment. But, no, the past is a mirror with some adjustment necessary to make sense of change (which only makes it all more interesting). I see the past the way a jazz musician sees a scale — once you know it you can riff on it, transpose within it, play off of it, and still land softly, perfectly, back home. That is the pleasure (see last post) I don’t want young people to miss.


  1. Wow! Thanks Marc. Your posts so often go far beyond the topic of writing and non-fiction. Today’s is no exception. I get that little shiver that comes with the knowledge that life is a mystery. A mystery to be explored and enjoyed, but never fully grasped, always open-ended.

  2. Great viewpoint. I’ve always found history fascinating, although I have experienced some teachers who tried their best to beat the life out of it.

  3. Thanks to both of you, I’m thrilled to find others who share my passion for history.

  4. Vicky Alvear Shecter says:

    So well put! I always find myself sputtering in dismay when I hear a kid say history is boring. But now I know exactly how to respond: “That is like saying life is boring, I am boring, self-knowledge is boring, tragedy is boring, comedy is boring, drama is boring.” I can’t think of any better response than that.

  5. Vicky:

    thanks, hope the sentence works, and gets someone to give history another chance.