We were watching the film Musical 1776 last night which provoked a few memories. I first say the musical play on July 4th, 1976 when it was staged in Stern Grove, San Francisco. There was no seating per se, simply bring your blankets and brown bags and perhaps a bottle of wine or two and get comfortable. Later on we watched the fireworks. The film version is very good since they had the opportunity to add in some Philadelphia scenery. I think it becomes a very moving affair when you already have a background in history. That is, you have done extensive reading and can so easily slip into spirit of the time.
When I was a child in primary school I read my own books, most of which were history related. For some reason the public school system placed great emphasis of reading fiction and so I trotted out the volumes of The Hardy Boys to meet that requirement. Besides, we had a number of them so they were handy. But I do not remember that we were even taught muc history outside of George Washington and his cherry tree. Instead, I do remember the paperback books I collected that were World War II histories or memoires. My mother didn’t like my collection of books. Every couple of months I would purchase another book, perhaps one on the revolutionary war or the civil war or even something simple about science. I marched to the sound of a different drummer, always have.
Later when we had moved into the Philadelphia area I spend time at the local library reading the bound copies of American Heritage or some science book that didn’t require math. Mathematics has never been my strong suit although I could eventually muddle my way through calculus. But the junior and senior high school history books were deadly dull and usually slanted in the glorified manner of patriotism and correct personal behavior expected of our leaders. I really had no use for public school and would much rather have spent my time in the Swarthmore College library, where at the age of fifteen I passed for nineteen and drew the interest of freshwomen and sophomore women. By then my taste in books had changed and a swam through any number of Greek plays, greek histories, primers on psychology, and political tracts. My older brother was attending Drexel Institute of Technology before Bill Cosby made it popular and it became a university.
The first real textbook of history I read was This Age Of Conflict by Chambers and I not only enjoyed the book but I started to judge other history books by its standard. Later on in the service I would read a lot of history books in the base library, most of which were more survey courses. I was able to find a survey history of each of the South American countries which really blew my mind, for now I had a much broader vision not only of history but of culture as well. I think this is what the college education aims to do for its students but often times fails so miserably. I rather like the old Oxford approach in which one was encouraged to read and study with some direction for an advisor or Don, and then sit for exams at the end of your three or four years residence. Of course that is simply not done anymore. But as I bought more books, the majority of which were history, I read more as a young adult and even included a few volumes of short stories. I was a long way from reading novels. I read more science, ever escalating up in difficulty, read any number of books on business management and individual histories of corporations. One of the most fascinating was the history of the DuPont company. You know, management is more about history than it ever was about science. It looks backwards in the past to see from where it has come to gain a sense of where it might go. But they don’t teach that in business schools. You learn the future value of money but not the future value of history.
Now I read far more novels for one finds the history of cultures defined in them. One sees the expectations of social mores and proper behavior as defined by the culture. Fiction writers have a lot to teach us because they teach approximations of the true values and goals of in the societies for which they wrote. The ruling classes have their visions of what society should do and the working classes attempt to convert those visions into reality. Unfortunately the working classes don’t really understand much of what they do when it comes to that transformation and so the much it up a bit. Maybe the ruling classes should do their own dirty work. But that is how most societies work. History is really nothing more than the march of patterns through the successive ages. Our basic wants and needs and values don’t change much from generation to generation, we just think they do.