Do any of the following things sound familiar?
An article buried deep in the newspaper about some new archeological discovery on some old battlefield not only catches your attention and keeps you reading for the next few minutes but sends you immediately to the computer to find out more about the battle and the people who fought it. The sections of the book store you aim for first are history or biography. A new Ken Burns documentary means your television viewing time is booked up for several nights. The History Channel is a preset favorite on your remote control. You consider a vacation that offers only a beach and shopping, with no old buildings or historical sites to wander through, a complete waste of time and money.
If you saw yourself in there, you’re probably suffering from historybuffitis. And there doesn’t seem to be a cure for it.
One of the symptoms is that you live as much in the past as in the present; another is that you’re nervous about the future because you’ve seen how history often repeats itself. But on the bright side, you know more things than lots of people. You know that the Titanic was an actual ship and not just the subject of a movie, that 44 men have been our president but there have been 45 presidential administrations (Grover Cleveland’s two terms were separated by Benjamin Harrison’s), that Thomas Jefferson and John Adams each died on the 50th anniversary of the day they signed the Declaration of Independence, and maybe even that C. S. Lewis died on the same day President Kennedy was assassinated.
Not knowing such stuff won’t likely be detrimental to people not afflicted with historybuffitis, unless they find themselves in a hot game of Trivial Pursuit or as a contestant on Jeopardy. But the fact that you know them, that the bits and pieces of the past flutter constantly around you like leaves on a breezy autumn day, is comforting to you. It gives you a more solid footing in a society that is increasingly losing interest in things intellectual.
But you should know that if you do indeed have this disease you’re in the minority. In fact you might even be an endangered species.
Historian David McCullough was interviewed on “60 Minutes” a few years ago. (By the way, you watch programs like “60 Minutes” also, in case a smidgen of history pops up there or, more likely, in case there’s a report about the past being reinvented yet again, perhaps a new brand of genocide or prejudice, or maybe that old devil Tyranny rearing its ugly head and grinding the masses beneath its mighty feet. You, having historybuffitis, probably saw these things coming.)
And the reason most folks didn’t is why David McCullough was on “60 Minutes”. The Pulitzer Prize winning author of John Adams and several other masterpieces is quite vocal these days about what he sees as a national problem: that with each passing generation we’re becoming more and more historically illiterate.
When looking for the root cause of the predicament there’s several likely candidates: Not enough dedicated history teachers who actually love their subject and want to share it, and far too many who spew out only the dusty facts that will be on a standardized test; Too many parents who don’t read or encourage their children to; Too many people who don’t give a flip about how we got here but are obstinately unhappy with where we are.
In that interview, McCullough said he was saddened, but not surprised, that a college student recently told him that she’d never known until hearing his speech that the thirteen original colonies were on the east coast.
What better proof is there that we need an epidemic, better yet a plague, of historybuffitis to run rampant?
So, where to start? Here are a few modest proposals. Read with your kids; take them to a museum; watch a documentary with them. You may even enjoy such doings, and you might just kindle a spark in your children that will burn brightly the rest of their lives.
A college student not knowing that the thirteen original colonies weren’t on the east coast bodes ill for the future. And it’s a good thing that the alarm is being sounded by people like David McCullough, like a modern day Paul Revere.
Oh, I forgot to mention that if you have historybuffitis you tend to slip historical allusions into your metaphors and similes.
[This originally appeared as a newspaper column in some former historical era or another]