Used to be, I’d get up in the morning and turn on the cable TV news. Just to, you know, find out if the world had blown up overnight. Then I’d come home from work and catch up on the news of the day.
Can’t do it anymore.
For one thing, it’s not “news” — CNN’s perennial “Breaking News” banner notwithstanding. It’s infotainment; panels of pundits masticating political bones. I actually feel dumber after watching a half-hour of that crap.
What’s a media addict to do when he’s in need of an audio-visual fix — one that can actually produce a desirable effect? Fire up the Youtube and get a quick shot of history.
On July 28, 2014, an American expat living in Sweden named Indiana Neidell (for real) launched a Youtube project titled The Great War.
Its premise was to cover the events of the First World War, matching up the centennial of that seminal conflict week by week through November 11, 2018. Other segments included technology developed during the war, concurrent events like the Mexican Revolution and vignettes on remarkable personalities.
In hundreds of short shots of under 10 minutes to as much as 20 minutes, The Great War adds up to a deep immersion in an extraordinary historical event. Neidell left the project after carrying it through the centenary of the Armistice, and a Canadian historian named Jesse Alexander picked up with material dealing with the aftershocks of the war such as the German Revolution and the Russian Civil War.
Neidell and his creative partner Spartacus Olsson (for real) have since created content through their TimeGhost channel covering World War II and the fascinating but underrepresented interwar years in Between 2 Wars.
With literally hundreds of short, quality documentaries at your fingertips, you have a way to start the day or wind down from work that actually makes you feel like you’ve learned something.
Supposedly, these are dire times for the discipline of history. The New Yorker recently ran a piece decrying The Decline Of Historical Thinking and Financial Times posited that U.S. Declining Interest In History Presents Risk To Democracy. Both pieces focus on the crash in numbers of history majors in universities. And both pieces have a particular political slant.
I am not convinced that people in general are as disinterested as the declining numbers of history majors at university might lead us to believe. What if we’re focusing on the wrong things in the wrong ways when it comes to encouraging a grasp of history? Making knowledge of history sound like a civic duty puts a dreary cast on what ought to be a lusty, red-blooded passion.
Back in graduate school, I earned a big, fat C on a paper for an economic history class. I’d chosen to write about the Molly Maguires and the labor unrest in the anthracite coal country of Pennsylvania in the 1870s. “Too much story. Not enough economics.”
Well, no shit Professor. The tale of the Molly Maguires is a damn crime story. An Irish secret society. Detectives infiltrating said secret society. Murder and mayhem. And you want me to write about the economics? Nah. I’ll take that C, thanks.
My degree is in history and my passion for a connection with the past imbues every breath I take. I never forget, though, that what captivated me from the beginning was the Story — especially stories of men facing adversity in wild country. A sense of adventure set my moccasins on the trail, which eventually did lead me into the Dismal Swamps of Economics, out on the Seas of Diplomacy and out into the Great Political Desert. Adventure keeps me on the trail still.
Certainly, our cultural amnesia and the impulse to hide from or erase uncomfortable history is a sorry state of affairs. We need history. We need the wisdom gleaned from the experience of others; we need context and the sense of perspective that history grants us. But bitching about the decline of interest in history is bootless (and, yes, I’ve indulged in it). I just don’t think you can hector people into doing better.
The original Great War post has 2.8 million views. That’s a pretty good indication of interest. So is the fact that Indy has gone on to produce two more similar shows. My experience is that people ARE, in fact, interested in history — if it’s interesting. Is that too much to ask?
Come gather ’round me buckaroos, and a story I will tell…