Can't We Just Get Along? History and Genealogy Need to Join Up

17/01/2013 16:45 GMT | Updated 18/03/2013 09:12 GMT

Not long ago I was on the telephone pitching a story line I had for an article to a history society. The editor was quite interested in the concept, my bona fides, etc. Then I mentioned that I was going to accomplish this article with the inclusion of some information about some of the people who lived at the time I was writing about, but that it would not be simply a genealogy. Whoops! I was shut down in two sentences. "What, you plan on talking about people? Sorry, we don't want that since we only want stories about history." Sad to say that I will admit to not being all that surprised by the response since I had tried pitching the same concept to three other history organizations and not a one of them ever even bothered to respond to me.


But this most recent incident got me to thinking. What is it about this all too familiar artificial delineation of academic subject matter? Why the inherent silos between such affiliated subjects as history and genealogy? Is one deemed worthy while the other is not? Is one 'real' while the other is not? I'm reminded of the old philosophical question 'If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?' In this case I feel as if I want to shake a finger at many historians and explain something that, to me, is plain as day. Without people, there is no history!

In my biography on my Onward To Our Past® website you will see that I identify as a 'genealogical historian'. I personally believe these two disciplines go together like one of my favorite sandwiches, peanut butter and jelly (actually my favorite sandwich is peanut butter, jelly and braunschweiger, but that is a great story for a different time). As I began to lose myself in thought on this artificially constructed barrier I happened to look at the bookshelf behind my desk. There I see history book after history book. Take a look at my electronic bookshelf over on LibraryThing and you will see that it is chock full of history books, which I view as an integral part of my genealogy holdings. In my mind you just can't do justice to your ancestors if you do not study and try to understand the times in which they lived. To simply construct a list of names misses the opportunity to retain the most important aspect of your family history, which to me what I call the 'intricate cultural fabric of families'. We must understand the times and the milieu in which our ancestors lived, their backgrounds, occupations, and beliefs. Each of which helps us to arrive at a better understanding not only our ancestors, but just as likely, to claim a deeper understanding of ourselves.

As I continued to stare at my books I thought back to many of my history classes in school. Only two words swirled about my mind. Over and over the only thing I could really recall from my history classes and courses was this: 'rote memorization'. Dates, dates, and more dates, with a treaty thrown in now and again, plus if I was really lucky perhaps what that treaty actually did, but usually not. On occasion some famous person would be tossed in, but usually only a smattering of the top-shelf individuals ... Presidents, Despots, Generals, and the like. The overall purpose always seemed to be the same. Memorize and then fill in the timeline with all the important dates of history. It was the date that was important. Not the history behind the event(s) of those dates.


When I was getting ever deeper in my Bohemian genealogy and began learning about the effects on that county of The Thirty Years War I thought to myself 'what did I ever learn in school about this very significant event?' Honest to goodness, I can tell you that all I was ever taught was that all I needed to know was "1618-1648". I neither needed to learn who was involved, who destroyed almost the entire nation of Bohemia, nor the significant impacts on virtually all of Europe as a result. Nope, I just needed to remember was those dates to fill in on that all-important timeline for my exam. It wasn't until my senior year in university that I finally had a great history class. I found myself with the luxury of having a 'free credit' I needed to fill. I had completed my distribution requirements and likewise the requirements for my majors. I remember vividly telling my parents that I had signed up for a class titled "United States History: 1920 to the Present". My father replied "Why would you ever do that?" I explained that in all my schooling up to that time, every one of my history teachers quit teaching 'history' right around the year they were born. In my case that meant that I never got any explanation of history from about 1920 and after. After mumbling something about 'I am not old enough to be studied in history' he admitted that, yes, perhaps this was a good idea for me. After all, he suggested it would be good for me to learn about The Roaring '20s, The Great Depression, and World War II. As it came to pass, that class turned out to be one of my all-time favorites of my undergraduate years.

Ever since, I find that by my combining the people with the facts and details of history I am able to arrive at a far deeper, more comprehensive understanding of history and historic events. Best of all I have also learned how these important events manifested themselves in my ancestors' lives, my family, and, even in me. For example, I better understand my father and mother's frugality when I learned what The Great Depression was really like. So why did my history teachers not include assignments to read Nobel Laureates John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" or Pearl S. Buck's "The Good Earth"?

I also finally began to understand some of the prejudices that were taught to me, which I was able to trace to the near annihilation of my Bohemian ancestors and their homeland by the Catholic Church during the Counter-Reformation. It certainly also helped me understand my great grandfather and other family members' embracing of the Free Thinkers Movement.

All I had to do was connect the dots of history with the people of my family history. It made history come alive and it made my ancestors far more 'human'. Far more than simply names on a family tree. Now no matter what history subject I encounter, I seek to learn about the impact of that on the real people of that time and place.


So why is this not the modus operandi for teaching all history? Wouldn't students of all ages enjoy learning more of the people and purposes, the causes and impacts, behind all those dates? Besides... while I know I had to 'learn' them, I have no recollection at all of the dates of the Louisiana Purchase, the Gadsden Purchase, and probably a hundred more. Guess that was all just a classic case of 'learn it for the test and forget it'.

What a waste!