Thursday, November 26, 2009

Filling in the Blanks


I know that this may be hard to believe but some of my students tell me that they find history boring.

They object to the names and the dates, the causes and effects, the dead white men and the occasional woman. They find their textbook flavorless, merely an anchor in the shape of a book, holding them back, dulling their senses.

What they are missing is the way that history fires the imagination. Today is Thanksgiving Day; historically a day hidden in myth and misunderstanding. When I think of it I first consider the facts. A group displaced from Europe to a place where feeding themselves was a constant challenge, where hostile tribes emerged from the woods with questions about why so many of their own had recently died, where the truce that eventually held them together would dissolve into a sadistic violence called King Phillip's War. It is an act of imagination to complement the facts with interpretation - to choose what qualities should be highlighted and which could be relegated to a lesser position.

Today we recall the courage and the determination it took for the Pilgrims to stay here. We watch in awe at the recreations of their crossing and landing and that agonizing first winter. It is a matter of perspective though, as, if a group went to the moon today, and had half of its members die within a year, and eventually created a permanent enemy in the natives it found there, no amount of interpretation would find any virtue in it.

The facts only take you so far. The textbook can deliver the student to a point, and it is a useful place to be, but it is not the whole picture. Imagination fills in the blanks. It puts tastes on the tongue, butterflies in the pit of your stomach, the waves under the ships, and the angers and the passions that moved those dead white men and occasional woman to act, to write, to move, to stay, to lie, and to pledge. If you want to know history you have to take that leap, to give yourself over to the much more challenging prospect of imagining. My advice is to go for it.

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