Back to the future: A History lesson

My friend sitting in the desk to my left would first start to blink repeatedly a couple of times in a row. His head would start to sag to the side and he’d shake it in an effort to wake-up, but soon enough he would be fast asleep.

I, on the other hand, would be on the edge of my seat, excited, and focused intently on the teacher’s stories.

Whether it was elementary school or middle school History, I couldn’t get enough. I wanted more.


The stories played themselves out like little movies in my head:

–When Thomas Paine published Common Sense, his famous pamphlet advocating for the colonies independence from Great Britain in 1775, what happened next? How did the people react? How quickly did they start to mobilize?


–On the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg, hit already with heavy losses, why did Confederate General Robert E. Lee charge the center of the Union line?

–When a German U boat sunk the nonmilitary British ocean liner, the RMS Lusitania,  on May 7, 1915, killing 128 U.S citizens, how quickly did the news spread and sentiment build in the U.S. to go to war?

–When Neil Armstrong, a part of Apollo 11, became the first person to walk on the moon, he described it as “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” But how did he celebrate when he got back into his command module? Did he gulp down a cup of Tang? (Remember the 70s advertising pitch: Drink what the astronauts drink.)

Empires to everyday life

I loved learning about our history. Yes as a kid I tended to prefer the military stuff, more action adventure to keep my interest — things like the Roman rule over everyone else; the Norman conquest of England; the reign of Ghengis Khan; as well as, the rise and fall of Napoleon.


I had a preference for U.S. history. I could more readily relate to it, but I was still fascinated with how the Incan and Macendonian Empires became so large with such limited tools. They were like my Amish neighbors, who stepped away from modern comforts, but maxed out times ten on steroids.

Quiet on set

In the end, I’m sure movies and television played a role in driving my fascination.  I loved a good story. I loved learning about why people did the things they did. How they reacted and what they did next. Like a movie director, I imagined each scene in my head. My little hometown was as far removed from Hollywood as possible, but I could see the protagonist and villain play out their important roles.

I wanted more and more. I wanted the back story and details that no one knew. I wanted to know what happened to the 115 settlers who established a colony on Roanoke Island, off the coast of what is now North Carolina in August 1587, only to completely disappear three years later. I wanted to know what drove the Pilgrims on the Mayflower to turn their backs to what they knew in 1620 to travel to a new land.


My friends could have cared less. Oh History was better than English or Music class in their minds, but just barely. They would yawn and tell me they were bored to death. They would tease me for knowing that the Battle of Gettysburg took place July 1-3, 1863 and that President Lincoln would travel to the battlefield four months later to give his 272 word Gettysburg Address. Many of them would react the same way I reacted to Math and Science. Their eyes would glaze over.


I get the focus on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) in today’s classrooms. According to the U.S. Department of Education, all STEM jobs in the U.S. will increase 14 percent from 2010-2020, accounting for millions of positions. Yet, data shows that 3 million of those jobs will go unfilled by 2018.

But I discovered at a young age and still think today that it’s important to understand our history, why we do things we do, understand our own and other’s motivations and thought processes, and how we got to this point in time.

Giving us hope and perspective

I’m drawn to the oft-quoted line from the The Dead Poet’s Society on the power of poetry. It’s not quite apples-to-apples, but I think it still speaks to the human condition.

“Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”


In short, we’re lost without an understanding of our History. It gives us context and guides our work in medicine, law, business, engineering and so many other professions. In short, we need our history to better determine our future.

And it’s a great story too.



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