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David Bouchier: The Human Race Gets An 'F' In History

Lin-Manuel Miranda in "Hamilton," the musical.
Evan Agostini
Invision / Associated Press
Lin-Manuel Miranda in "Hamilton," the musical.

It has been said, rather too often, that in the past year we have been living through history. But we live through history all the time, as long as we live at all — we don’t have much choice. Even the supposedly boring 1950s were history. We suffered the very real threat of nuclear war, and Senator Joe McCarthy’s attack on democracy, the Korean War, the polio epidemic and the arrival of rock and roll. It wasn’t dull, I can tell you. I was there.

Before history was written down there was prehistory, when plenty of things were happening but we don’t know what. People who lived in prehistory missed their chance of being a part of the record, but they never knew, and never cared. Even most recorded history is forgotten almost as soon as it happens. Presidents, pop stars, and pandemics come and go, leaving only a few lines in old books and a rapidly fading memory. In the long term we retain only the edited highlights. We may know that a thousand years ago, in 1021, King Henry I invaded Italy, although not why, and that five hundred years ago in 1521 Henry VIII executed the Duke of Buckingham for treason. That must have made the headlines. The human story, seen through the historical record, is one long, murderous soap opera. Ordinary people like you and me, or at least like me, are mere spectators of the perpetually repeated drama in which really important people fight for wealth and power.

History rolls on, as chaotic and as unpredictable as ever, and yet I imagine that we would like some of the events in our own lifetimes to be remembered as History with a capital H, and perhaps they will. The unlucky year 2020 was documented in the most intense detail in every imaginable medium — not just in dry written reports for future scholars but in videos, interviews and live news reports on every stage of the unfolding calamity. The post-mortem will go on for years. There’s no shortage of information for future historians, and plenty of lessons for future generations.

But when it comes to learning lessons of history the entire human race gets an F. It may be that we simply don’t want to know too much about our past, or at least the darker parts of it. As the teaching of history fades away in schools and universities each new generation will remember less, and care less, and learn less from the past. They will get their history from the movies. Only the most dramatic, colorful, or romantic events make it into the movies, where the history lesson is simplified, scripted, tidied up, populated with big-name stars, decorated with a love interest, dramatic settings, and perhaps (as in the case of Alexander Hamilton) music and dance. Who knew anything about the Trojan War before Brad Pitt joined in, or realized that Mel Gibson put so much energy into the cause of Scottish Independence in 1298? Film makers can do what they like with history. The people who lived through it don’t care, for reasons that it would be impolite to mention.

The past year was so confusing, so full of contradictions and conflicting plot lines, that I really don’t understand any of it yet. But what a drama it was, and still is!

I’m waiting for the movie to come.

Copyright: David Bouchier


David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.