I have a vague memory of sitting at the feet of a very old black man at the YMCA long ago to listen to his memories of the previous century when he was born into slavery somewhere in the deep south. He was bald, wrinkled, and tiny, but his eyes were alert and his sense of humor had not been diminished by the years. That's all I can remember; none of his stories have abided in me. The fault is mine.
We don't know anyone who remembers anyone at the giving of the tablets at Sinai or at the Crucifixion on Golgotha. We've never looked into the eyes of a single Concord Bridge or Gettysburg veteran. And a week ago, the last of World War I's doughboys passed away. The memory of that terrible war has receded toward the horizon.
As a teacher I observed a sea change among students. Whereas I grew up longing to embrace history, feeling warmed by every sign that the past was still alive--the occasional horse drawn wagon on the streets of Chicago, the intact village of Salem, Illinois where Abraham Lincoln was a store clerk, the German Luger that my uncle took from a Nazi officer after the surrender--my students condescend to previous ages because of their primitive technology and quaint values.
We know why we need to study the past. History provides context without which nothing makes sense. And today, with revolution sweeping the Middle East, with Japan reeling from both natural and man-made disasters, with the long, proud history of American organized labor heading for the ash can, and with little but clamor to chart the course of our economy, context is very precious indeed.
WW I Ambulance, illustration by Elisa Chavarri for Michigan History Magazine, 2008. The late Corporal Buckles drove one of these. It's hard to paint war effectively. Here the artist uses restrained color and uncluttered composition to contextualize rather than dramatize this vehicle of suffering. Click on the picture for a closer look.