Yet both of those wars are still within living memory. They occurred within the last few seconds of recorded history’s day. What about the rest of human experience? Relying on recent events to teach us historical truths is a perilous business. History needs room — lots of room — for perspective. Divining lessons from the experiences of the last few generations is like describing a Monet landscape with one’s nose touching the canvas. Those colors and dabs are pretty, but they just won’t make sense until you back up and experience them from a distance.
That doesn’t mean that lessons should not be drawn from World War II or Vietnam. But it does mean that we should do so within the context of the rest of history. We need the big picture. And that is just what is disappearing from our schools. No wonder, then, that current challenges like the war on terror are forcibly jammed into the mold of the last century’s wars. We simply don’t remember anything else. Could the ancient Roman experience with Jewish extremist terrorism have any lessons for Americans prosecuting a war against Islamic extremism? Could the Hellenistic Greek response to Roman hegemony help us understand European attitudes toward America’s position as the world’s lone superpower? Who knows? Who cares? After all, that’s “ancient history.” The Founding Fathers believed that an education grounded in the Classics (read in Latin!) was an essential foundation for good citizenship. Today that’s just trivia — useful for winning on Jeopardy! — but not much else.
The good thing about history, though, is that it doesn’t go away. Just because schools are disinterested in it doesn’t mean that it’s not available for those who are interested. Indeed, there are an increasing number of professional historians willing to venture outside the ivory tower to write understandable history for a general audience. One thinks of Donald Kagan, Niall Ferguson, Bernard Lewis, and Victor Davis Hanson, among others. Often dismissed as “popularizers” by their colleagues, these scholars endure the rolled eyeballs of the academy in order to teach those parts of history that we should all have learned in school.
Put a nickel in a jar every time you hear the phrase, “History teaches/shows us that . . . ,” and watch your savings grow. There is no question that history remains the star of political speeches, talk shows, stage, and screen. It’s a shame that it has such a bit part in America’s higher-education institutions.
– Thomas F. Madden is professor of history and director of the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Saint Louis University (a school that requires pre-modern history for its undergraduates). His most recent book is Empires of Trust: How Rome Built — And America is Building — A New World.