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Revisionist History March 9, 2011

Posted by J. in Genius.
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Salve Regina College, class of 1991. That's me, second row, third from the left.

I took an American history class as an undergraduate student at Salve Regina College, which is unremarkable because history is required study at a liberal arts school.  Truth be told, history has always been right in the middle of the pack of the hierarchy of things I was interested in and wanted to learn about.  I liked learning about the past, but history is one of those subjects that it must be easy to make painfully dull because it so often is, and I planned to just get it out of the way.

Br. John Buckley was a colorful character to begin with, but he has the distinction of being the first teacher to make history come to life for me.  I thought he was a great storyteller.  He was a hell of a lecturer, and he’d go on for an entire class period on some aspect of history or other, but he’d do it in such a way that you’d swear he was talking about something that just happened.  If you were to eavesdrop on a lecture and you didn’t realize he was teaching history, you might have assumed he was gossiping about something going on in the here and now, and I just found his ability to make events long past feel immediate endlessly entertaining.

Br. John taught me to view history from the inside out.  He showed me how it’s not enough to look back and say “this happened, and isn’t that awful/great/amazing” without putting yourself in the shoes of the folks that lived at the time.  It’s easy to look at the past and make judgments because we know what’s coming next, don’t we?   We’ve seen the outcomes.  Every day we learn more stuff that makes the things we did as a species last week look stupid, and the things we did centuries in the past seem infantile and barbaric.  Where we screw up is when we fail to go back even further and see what set the stage before it.  What conditions were in place that paved the way for what came next, and how did those results set up the next chain of events?

This is Poops' brain on history. Any questions?

Well, hot damn and hallelujah.  History exploded from a dry, neatly sequenced time-line into a wide-reaching web with threads that crossed back and forth and up and back, and suddenly the trip through history was much more exciting.  I’ve certainly never looked at it the same way again.  As it turns out, I’m not much for the linear thinking.  Who knew?

Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on how you look at it, it has made it impossible for me to even attempt to point fingers and place blame with perfect hindsight.  I mean, it always seems easy enough to look back and say to yourself that you’d never have believed something that ridiculous, or that you’re too good a person to be taken in by such rhetoric, or that the “important” parts have all been left out or glossed over by the writers of history.   But I have to wonder how would I have felt, how would I have reacted, and what would I have done if I was a product of a time not my own.  Take out all my accumulated knowledge and things aren’t as clear as they were.

Br. John definitely taught a technicolor history.  Nothing was as simple as black or white, but he wasn’t so much a de-bunker as he was a color-inner.  The details that we already knew by heart were still there; he added other bits that were not central to the story but served to give a greater, wider understanding of the situation as it was back when it actually happened.  He cautioned us to not re-write history but to re-think our position on it.  There are not two sides to every story but many sides, and it’s far too facile to say only one view is ever correct.  If you would delete, gloss over or whitewash the details, you’re missing some of the stuff from the past that can lead to a better understanding of our present.  But then by the same token, if you would focus on only the parts you accuse History of deleting or glossing over or whitewashing, you’re not fixing the problem either.

I think that class stands out because I believe it was the first time in my life I was actually challenged to understand things that defy understanding.  Br. John did it in an interesting, gossipy-style of storytelling which was, even if it had been nothing else, entertaining on its own and a way to engage his students in the subject.  But what he did for me was to put human faces on our heroes and human hearts in our villains.   In the end, history is about humanity and all our feats and foibles, and he didn’t let us forget it.

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Comments»

1. Yorkie - March 10, 2011

My dad was a history teacher before he went to The Dark Side for more practical purposes. I don’t think he was as colourful as your Br. John, but he too didn’t see history as just a series of events. He told me history is about the common man, and the one lesson to take away from the study of it all is that the common man just wants to be left alone. I wish everyone could have just one good history teacher in life. It really helps you see your place in the world and the events that lead up to your existence.


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