Search on SLJ.com ....
Subscribe to SLJ
Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

what we can learn from 1989

The Wall Fell So Recently, What Can History Tell Us That We Don’t Already Know?

Tim Garton Ash, who not only knows a great deal about European history but also writes well, was in Prague during the thrilling days of the famous Velvet Revolution. He described those events  in articles in the New York Review of Books, and gave readers the feeling of being there with the crowds as history was being made. But tame has passed, indeed the anniversary year is ending, and he wrote a review essay about a spate of new books that deal with 1989, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/23232 The really interesting bit is that while he was  there, was a smart, engaged, participant observer who both saw the events unfold and had deep background knowledge, he feels now that it will take another ten years and much more detailed scholarship to understand what took place. In other words, being in an event as it takes place makes for great journalism, but it is only the beginning, not the end, of great history.
   This is important because I think it gives us a way to explain why history matters. Yes kids are caught up in the moment, and have ever more devices that connect them to events  and people right now. But all of that connection is two dimensional– it is the buzz of the now.  We need distance, study, pause, looking at things in new ways, from different angles, to make sense of them. An event in our own lifetime, one fully recorded on TV, is only now beginning to come into view. Tim Garton Ash points out, for example, the key role of China in 1989 — Tienanmen took place just as the wall was falling. China became the example everyone, communists and anti-communists, wanted to avoid. So events in Europe were influenced by those in China, even as the Chinese govt. changed its course based on the fall of communism in Europe. No news broadcast noticed this at the time — it took reading archives to find out what was going on behind closed doors to learn it. So history shows us what was not visible in the present.
  History reveals, it is a microscope showing the tiny events that we don’t notice but which have  big effects, and it is a telescope, bringing into focus causes and effects far away that influence us. History is the record of how we are connected and how we have influenced each other. That is why it is so interesting, and so important.