Sweaty Spice, the other Spice Girl

While in grade school, middle school, and high school, I resented history classes. At the time I couldn't define why I didn't appreciate history, but I suspect that it is because it was taught dryly. We memorized dates of important events, and some flimsy description.

Now, I realize that what was lacking was context. We had this list of important events that we needed to know about, and so we were drilled in it. As with most rote memorization tasks taught in high school, I just tuned out and did "OK".

It spurred no passion, no insight.

That changed (somewhat) in college. In my third year, needing to fill out the general education humanities requirement, I enrolled in a semester course on US History.


To say I was blown away would be to put it mildly. Not merely a list of events and dates, we dove into public opinions around the events, and some events that were, uh whitewashed in high school (that is sanitized, and warped to show that the United States was a force for good) were laid out in all the harsh reality.

The run up to the Spanish American war - shameful. The real triggers of the Civil War. The great compromise of 3/5th's in the US Constitution, even the politics of US intervention in Central America to protect business interests.

None of this is remotely about "American Exceptionalism" that politicians like to espouse.

I suspect that they all know well enough that their concept of American Exceptionalism has so many caveats as to be worthless, but it tells a good story to the general population that 90+% who have never gone beyond the cherry picked high school curriculum will buy at face value.

That university level US history class opened my eyes, and opened me to history as a fascinating subject. But I was studying physics, and well, I didn't have the time in my early 20's to dive in and learn more.

Later, I discovered the history of Mathematics, as a way to understand how physics progressed throughout the major milestones. When I took a course on "Mechanics" we would rapidly survey many key concepts in physics that actually took hundreds of years to figure out. Learning about the individuals who made the breakthroughs was enlightening, and in many ways helped me understand the physics beyond the solutions to specific problems.

Back to US History

In my early 40's, on a whim, I bought the three volume set by Daniel Boorstin titled "The Americans", encompassing "The Colonial Experience", "The National Experience" and "The Democratic Experience". All three are relatively short (a few hundred pages) and a clear read. If you pick them up and read them, they are engaging, though provoking, and a good over view.

That should be good enough to kindle a desire to learn more, and go further.


A couple weeks ago, bored, and surfing Hulu, I saw a series called "Ancient Top Ten" a History Channel production that had ten episodes laying out BCE civilization events around industry, warfare, achievements, and other topics. It was typical History Channel pablum, but it caused me to buy a copy of "SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome", and I am about half way through that. Unlike dry history with dates and events, the author, Mary Beard, weaves a fascinating narrative, providing clues to what was happening on the ground at the time, as well as informing us about the gaps in knowledge (i.e. not papering over the holes in the story, and laying it out as we know it, in terms that the laity can understand).


That one college course sparked the interest, and now in my late 50's I am digging in, and greatly enjoying exploring the vast body of history. I have a copy of "The Encyclopedia of the Barbarian World - Ancient Europe" to tuck in to.

Learning about what came before is quickly becoming a passion.

And reading about the dissolution of the Roman Republic into Imperial Rome seems to have more than a casual relationship for how the US is going these days.

If you have $60 to spare, I can highly recommend the Boorstin books. Boorstin was the Librarian of Congress, and a master in his own rights. He has a gift for explanation, and articulation that just clicks.

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