Fly on the Wall—History Electives

Causes and Consequences and Positive Outcomes

Protean possibilities, boundless as one’s imagination, begin with raw facts.  Think of how you feel in any given moment of whimsy, dipping salted French fries into a milkshake for instance, and it’s clear that the stuff of reality is also the mean of reality’s transcendence.  The present tense, seemingly immutable and certain and stolid, is the product of countless past decisions.  Choosing our majors and our electives is one such example of creative synthesis.  History courses can teach us about far more than distant times and places.  They can help us to understand ourselves and our personal present tense.

Although most of world history is far beyond our control, either because it happened before our time or because we aren’t one of those movers and shakers that make the big decisions, we nevertheless can become engrossed in trying to understand history’s unfolding.  To study history is to enter a participatory realm where new reasons and interpretations for events comes within our grasp.

As an undergrad, many history electives aided my academic development.  Besides the usual distance courses through AU, I also partook in some joint venture classes run in Nelson, BC, with material provided by Athabasca.  My professor, an elderly German-Canadian with a PhD in history from the university of Chicago, could literally remember his older sister giving the fascist salute back in the old country when a motorcade past.  Few of us have seen such a sight from our windows but, of course, today the internet provides windows to history’s soul, or so it would seem.  Yet all is not equal in the land of historical interpretation and 2022’s Ukraine war is no exception.

Recently, I had a perusal through one of the books that my professor gave me upon my completion of two AU history studies courses with his academic supervision.  It was ominously titled Hitler: A Study in Tyranny and was written by Alan Bullock, an Englishman, shortly after the end of the war.  Raw historical facts here met the interpretations of someone who lived in those painful and brutal times.

One quote, from the mouth of evil if such a word has an earthly meaning, nevertheless shone some light on what may be the motivations of Russia vis a vis their historical experiences of being invaded by Nazis during WWII for the expressly-stated intent of being enslaved and having their land stolen.  “When we speak of new territory in Europe today, we must principally think of Russia and the border states subject to her.  Destiny itself seems to wish to point the way for us here…This colossal empire in the east is ripe for dissolution.” (318)  These words remind us that, colonially and imperially speaking, there may, to this day be eyes seeking to claim untold natural resource riches from the largest nation-state on earth, if only it could be brought to its knees, vivisected, and kept in a supine state.

Russia clearly won’t have forgotten being invaded by the Third Reich and being part of the Cold War where only mutually assured nuclear death kept them from again having to defend their homeland.  Those who feel threatened (in this instance by perceived NATO encroachment) tend to lash out to protect their interests.  In today’s Johnny v.  Amber era this means to lawyer up, but in history this usually means to start a war (the US invasion of Iraq was an example, in 2003).

Here let us to recall George Santayana’s famous line: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (Online).  Having a few history grades under our belt is one area that can propel us to discursive success; whereas psychology and even business are susceptible to subjectivity and debate, the facts of history are written, often in stone and at least in paper, so to provide a baseline for thinking and pondering.  The human horror of the Ukraine crisis reminds us not only of our empathy skills, but also hopefully of the need to take history studies seriously that we may better provide to our peers the raw material of a thoughtful analysis for current events.

The best part of history might be that it can apply to our selves and our studies.  As with epiphanies in life and learning, raw data is the stuff of creativity.  Be it a potato clock or a rudimentary sundial chain-sawn into a forest stump, we work with what life gives us.  At AU, the key is to stay keen on our studies in the absence of charismatic prestidigitation on the part of a brick-and-mortar professor.  Gesticulations and anecdotes absent, we distance students learn to make the facts of our learning something of interest.  After all, as the 60’s counter-culture professor Alan Watts once stated, “A world in which there are no mysteries is a familiarity breeding contempt” (107).

Being too pat with common sense assertions in the present is a danger to our future as a society; happily, a few history electives can help to wrong these rights as we see the great lawns and forests of eons spread before our reading and writing gaze.  Perhaps an excess of familiarity is the enemy of real progress in our minds and lives.  In this sense, to challenge ourselves and illustrate a broader contest for our lives can also mean to study some history.  After all, education is best when it can be applied to daily life and we all live through history near and far for as long as we are alive.

References

Bullock, A.  (1952).  Hitler: A Study in Tyranny.  Middlesex, England: Penguin Books.

Santayana, G.  (1905).  ‘Great Ideas of Western Man’.  Retrieved from https://americanart.si.edu/artwork/those-who-cannot-remember-past-are-condemned-repeat-it-george-santayana-life-reason-1905

Watts, A.  (2021).  There is Never Anything But the Present.  New York: Pantheon Books.

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