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Monday, July 10, 2023

Opinion | Despairing over today’s divisions? Try reading some history. - The Washington Post

Opinion Despairing over today’s divisions? Try reading some history.

Children play by a cannon on Little Round Top Hill at Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania in 2013. (Michel du Cille/The Washington Post)

“Americans have a problem with scale.” I was sharing a stage with former education secretary Bill Bennett years back when he made this observation, and it has stuck with me. Bennett was talking about the awful casualties in the wars then raging in Afghanistan and Iraq vs. those suffered in earlier U.S. conflicts — a comparison that seemed to seldom occur to those decrying the loss of even one American soldier. Bennett was not minimizing the anguish of the families of the lost and the wounded, only pointing to how catastrophic the world wars had been by comparison.

The loss of any member of the U.S. military is a tragedy, of course, but Bennett’s point was well taken: Having a sense of history’s scale is essential to making informed judgments about contemporary events. Preserving that ability is especially important in an era when social media seems dominated by people who are either unaware of, or indifferent to, matters of historical scale.

I was reminded of that this week when listening to a podcast featuring Terry Pluto, whose day job is writing about sports but who had recently written for about the Battle of Gettysburg, the Civil War’s turning point, July 1 to 3, 1863. His column, which decried the modern-day habit of thinking things have “never been this bad,” stirred great reader interest, Pluto noted.

People who despair over today’s divisions, he said, should reflect on what armeddivision looks like — as with the showdown 160 years ago in Pennsylvania between forces commanded by Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and Union Gen. George Meade.

How to remedy the “scale problem”? Doing so requires familiarity with a lot of history that many, especially younger readers, might find boring. The urgency of the matter is clear: National test results released in May showed alarming declines in eighth-graders’ understanding of history and civics. Maybe a shortcut is in order: Historical fiction can be an effective way of enticing young adults into learning history. In 2015, I produced a list of 100 historical novels and thrillers that could serve as a “gateway drug” to history and reading generally.

Of all the titles on the list, I’d encourage American high school students especially, and even those in junior high, to take up Herman Wouk’s “The Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance.” Those works, about World War II, will stir in just about any reader a hunger to learn more about that epic conflict and perhaps to explore history more broadly.

Wouk, who died in 2019, was sometimes dismissed as “middlebrow” or even too “patriotic” during his 103 years on Earth. But don’t tell that to Joseph Epstein, perhaps the nation’s finest essayist and certainly the equal of any literary critic. Writing in 2020 for Commentary magazine about the nature of literary fame, Epstein listed Wouk — along with eminences such as Tom Wolfe and Jacques Barzun — among writers he “much admired.” That endorsement ought to be good enough for any high school history teacher.

Students unfamiliar with the scale of World War II who read, or listen to, those Wouk historical novels will finish with a very good grasp of the scale of the conflict, the unique evil that was Nazism, the genius of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, and much more.

One of Wouk’s skills was educating readers by educating his characters. Leslie Slote, a State Department veteran, is schooled in air warfare by a pilot named Bill Fenton, providing him with “a whole new vision of the war,” Wouk wrote.

Then the author takes us inside Slote’s mind: “In his fumed brain pictures reeled of aircraft crisscrossing the globe — bombers, fighters, transports, by the thousands — battling the weather and the enemy, bombing cities, railroads, and troop columns; crossing oceans, deserts, high mountain ranges; a war such as Thucydides had never imagined, filling the skies of the planet with hurtling machines manned by hordes of Bill Fentons.”

When students today hear about Russia, Ukraine and the largest conflict in Europe since World War II, what does that mean to them if they have little knowledge of World War II? How will they understand the implications of another global conflict as the West faces a potential new axis of evil in the Chinese Communist Party, Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the near-nuclear mullahs of Iran?

Similarly, if young people have no understanding of the vast bloodletting that was the Civil War, fought because of the country’s original sin of slavery, how can they navigate the current debates on race and reparations?

They can’t and they won’t. Without the sense of scale that even a decent grasp of history provides, it is simply not possible to appreciate the difference between what, today, might seem to be a deeply, dangerously divided country and the violent social upheaval of the 1960s, much less of the pre-Civil War era.

Too many people, as Pluto noted, are far too quick to subscribe to the “Big Lie” that “it’s never been this bad.” They clearly need to spend some time with a fair-minded account of the nation’s history."

Opinion | Despairing over today’s divisions? Try reading some history. - The Washington Post

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