In third grade, I read one Nancy Drew mystery book by Carolyn Keene after another. Nancy became such a good friend that I couldn’t stop reading at bedtime, so I read with a flashlight under the bed covers. A couple of grades later, I moved beyond Keene’s books to other stories that also grabbed my mind well after bedtime.
Throughout school and college, three books were among my many favorite authors: Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” and Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Those drew me into different parts of the world beyond Santa Barbara. They and other books made me conscious of history from ancient times to current times, appreciating what people endured and what changed their lives, some admirable but some suffering in crucial societies — and still are.
The more I read, the more history showed me what brought us into today’s world and what to consider for the future. Many of our current concerns and goals were not much considered in the past, such as women’s rights, attainable work and equality of opportunity for all people. Our country is not the same as 50 years ago, a hundred if not several centuries, but it is still stuck with inequality and ongoing problems. Knowing history can help make future decisions more clear.
Where did the books take me? I majored in history at college followed by a master’s degree at UCSB’s history graduate school and taught in secondary schools. All added to a small percentage of history but gave me new insight. I also became aware that history is often one opinion, not necessarily both sides, which means learning never stops.
Since living back in Santa Barbara, I have served on the UCSB History Associates board and became friends with one of UCSB’s best history professors, Dr. Hal Drake, specializing in ancient Roman history. Dull? Not with Drake’s sense of humor, importance of learning and bringing students into today’s world with awareness of the past and future.
We discussed why history is important. He answered among several reasons:
“The chief importance is knowing the past helps put your present in perspective. A great historian, Sir Lewis Namier, once wrote, ‘Imagining the past and remembering the future.’ That sounds backwards, doesn’t it? His point was that the way we think about our past affects the way we plan our future. If we believe that the Senate functioned flawlessly before now, we can decide it’s broken beyond repair. If we see its ups and downs in the past, it is easier to think of ways to take care of the problems we have now.”
He added another view: “The reason historians say the books will never be closed is because each age will find itself confronting new problems that then influences the way we study the past. There’s a mindless way of doing this — wanting everyone in the past to conform to our current ideas of right and wrong conduct.
“A more intelligent way is to pose new questions. Take one example: the 19th century read fifth century Thucydides writing — the great historian of the Peloponnesian war — for insights into politics and strategy. In the 20th century, we experienced the effects of total warfare. Suddenly historians were paying more attention to those passages where Thucydides describes the psychological and moral deterioration that results from prolonged warfare. Nobody made anything up — information for both points of view has always been there. That makes Thucydides a great historian. Each age has simply keyed in on passages that were more relevant to their lived experience.”
History studies and stories give a hint of what lives have experienced in different times — unlike what we know and experience today. That sense of the past can inform us how to move ahead.
Sadly, the three classic books that I read in school and that led me to interests in history often have been censured from education and public libraries by Banned Books Week. The American Library Association reported that 275 books in 2015 were among the 11,000 books banned since 1982. They have been restricted for reasons such as racism, violence, sexism, anti-Semitism and other topics dealing with forms of hate. Banned books should remain part of learning while adding a wider range of books about all Americans, poor to elite, white along with colored people, as well as a variety of lifestyles and personal histories.
No historical leader is perfect. Life for all has ups and downs. Most famous leaders experience more ups and add to the importance in American history, but efforts to eliminate them has increased. Banned books are one way. Two recent means include demolishing statues and canceling historical names for schools and public buildings. Replacing names of those with negative destruction to our democracy and American history is arguable, such as Confederate leaders during the Civil War era. But such decisions are not simple, given the complexity and difference of social culture throughout history. When a small group of people or a few board members make such judgments, the results can be ignorant and unfair. Community people and those involved with each school or statue location should also help make such decisions.
On the other hand, banned books could appeal to teenagers to be read!
If you are interested in books covering times with factual history, here are three suggested books.
Dr. Drake recommends David Hackett Fischer’s “Washington’s Crossing” (Oxford University Press, 2004) about the Revolutionary War and the beginning of the United States: “First-rate history that taught me more about this event than I ever knew, and written so well that for large parts you will think you are reading a novel. It also gave me renewed respect for Washington, and gratitude that he was our first president.”
The second book, a fast read with good coverage about the Civil War era, helped clear several misunderstandings I had about America during that time, “The War That Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters” by James McPherson.
Also consider Dr. Drake’s latest book, “A Century of Miracles: Christians, Pagans, Jews, and the Supernatural, 312-410” (Oxford, 2017).
History makes us aware of the past and cultural changes. If we are knowledgeable, it can help us improve decisions and make our democracy more effective, equal and existing.
— Noozhawk columnist Susan Miles Gulbransen — a Santa Barbara native, writer and book reviewer — teaches writing at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference and through the Santa Barbara City College Continuing Education Division. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.