Last month, one of Spokane’s favorite homegrown authors, National Book Award winner and New York Times columnist Timothy Egan, spoke before a standing-room-only house at Gonzaga’s Hemmingson Center.
Egan raised and answered the question: Why is learning history important? He chose this subject in part because today history is obviously taking a back seat to STEM in the classroom, and Egan believes that this is all wrong. Why? Because it’s through reading and understanding history, he observed, that we are able to understand who we are as Americans. And as study after study has shown, alas, there is much we don’t know, much we don’t study and as a result we form opinions that so often are ill-informed.
To illustrate, he referred to two subjects that remain often misunderstood and romanticized — slavery and immigration.
First about slavery. The first slaves that the English brought to America date from 1619. But what isn’t well known is that farther west, the Spanish and Portuguese had brought slaves to America almost a century earlier. This took Egan to more recent times — to the romanticizing of the Civil War that we see so often put on display throughout South. In the South, many still reverently refer to the war as “The Lost Cause.” And they make every effort to downplay slavery. Indeed, they play down the importance of slavery as the cause of what they prefer to call “The War of Northern Aggression.”
Egan was having none of this historical airbrushing exercise. He read the Confederate Constitution, and what he found was that, far from fading into the background of history, slavery was pretty much the central reason for the South leaving the Union. Indeed, while largely a states’ rights manifesto, their constitution specified that no Confederate state could do anything at all against slavery. In other words, “Lost Cause” romantic nonsense notwithstanding, not only was slavery central to the secession, it was critical to the very reason for the Confederation.
We don’t teach this message in school — certainly not in the South. But we should.
Egan takes up a version of the same issue in regards to immigration. With reference to his most recent work, The Immortal Irishman, and, no doubt his own heritage, he focuses on the Irish immigration that began during the 1840s. How many young (or older) people know the whys and wherefores of this massive immigration? Egan directs our attention to the Know Nothing Party (i.e. Anti-Irish Catholic Party). And then there was the potato famine, which evidence now suggests that the English had everything to do with. In other words, the English were engaging in a form of genocide in regards to the Irish. So to survive, they came to America. And the march has continued to this day.
The late Paul Kattenburg, writer and foreign service officer once wrote that America is not a “place" country, it is an “idea" country. We don’t’ use terms such as “Fatherland” or “Motherland,” we use idea terms such as freedom and liberty and justice and equality.
With reference both to National Parks and his two award winning books, The Worst Hard Time and The Big Burn, Egan is able to underscore his major thesis, which gets at Kattenburg’s insight. But lacking an understanding of history, we tend to airbrush all of this we don’t want to see or admit to.
And therein lies the problem.
Egan then ended on a sobering note. America, he reminded us, remains an experiment. No clearer statement of what this means for all of us was made by Abraham Lincoln that day at Gettysburg. I refer especially to his statement that we were at that time, “testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and dedicated can long endure.”
And so we are.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.