From Round to Square (and back)

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Sunday, November 27, 2011

Hurtin', Leavin' and Longin' (30)—What Mattered Most

Click here to read the introduction to the Round and Square series "Hurtin', Leavin', and Longin'..."
[a] Path RF
I call it the historiography song. I hate to say that it is not a particularly great one, but I have included it here because it gets to the heart of bad history, a subject (as a history teacher) that is very close to my heart. You see, I get a whole bunch of students every autumn who say that they "hate history." To me, that would be like saying "I hate everything that happened as of a moment ago." Everything (you see) is history, even these words when you read them. Everything is in "the past"—even things happening right now (that particular point can be understood in an everyday sense and a deep, philosophical one).

After a little bit of linguistic and cultural translation, I realize that the students seem to be saying that they "hate the academic study of history, at least as it has been introduced to them up until now." Of course, they aren't really saying that, but it becomes apparent quickly when they light up over discussions of things that happened to the past. Birthday parties. Major world events they talked about all morning long in fourth grade. "Classic" sports contests on television (or the local gridiron). And let us not forget the handful of history teachers in junior high school and high school who are so inspirational and rigorous that their lucky students learn to love the study of the past.

No, they don't hate the past—at least not all of it. (I would rather not relive high school, but maybe that's just me).

[b] Forested RF
Even Henry Ford didn't hate the past, despite declaring that "history is bunk." Without "the past," he could not have accomplished anything (of course). He might have said that "Narrowly interpreted historical education does not reflect the lived experience of the vast majority of people in the world bunk," but that doesn't quite have the same ring to it. In fact, Ford said something like this throughout the rest of his life to explain precisely what he had meant by all that bunk. Leaving aside for now Ford's more prescient point (that looking backward presents philosophical and practical problems that can profoundly affect everything from personal business to political life and the fate of nations), we will turn to another phrase that can be attributed to a whole bunch of people.

                           History is just one damn(ed) thing after another.

Interesting. Even though everyone from Nietzsche to Churchill to Edna St. Vincent Millay is said to have said it, the phrase reverberates for those of us who have had to sit through dreadful history classes in junior high and high school. You know the kind. This (damned) thing happened. Then that (damned) thing happened. Worst of all, the teacher has not always considered that we listeners might be conflating the two events and casually making causal connections that may or may not be relevant (the Crimean War ended; some of the best statuary the world had ever seen began to appear in Europe).

Worst of all, the tired narrative of worn-out lists form the foundation (if I can use such a word) of the most dreadful kind of memorization exercises. Don't get me wrong. I think that memorization is far more important than most people understand—even memorizing
"names and dates." The problem is memorizing "one damn(ed) thing after another." That's bunk.

[c] Gone RF
And that is where today's song comes in. Ty Herndon is hurtin' as he sings it, to be sure. It has a little bit of the syrupy "new country" sound that leaves it short of the many wonderful songs we've considered so far in this series of Hurtin', Leavin', and Longin' posts. Still, the message is one I can't resist. If you just pay attention to the details, you will miss everything. You won't just miss the forest for the trees (as the cliché line tells us). No, it's much, much worse than that:
                          S/he'll be gone.

Chew on that (and say it "in country" as in S/he's gown). Take a listen to this week's lyrics and, as always, watch the video later. Even these lyrics need to be pondered to get the full historiographical effect.

     What Mattered Most
        Artist: Ty Herndon
        Songwriters: Gary Burr, Vince Melamed

I thought I knew the girl so well
If she was sad I couldn't tell
I missed the point, I missed the signs
So if she's gone the fault is mine
I know, I know
A whole lot of little things
And even though
I could list them one by one
She would still be gone


Her eyes are blue
Her hair is long
In '64
She was born in Baton Rouge
Her favorite song
Is "In My Life"
I memorized her every move
I knew her books, her car, her clothes
But I paid no attention
To what mattered most

I never asked, she never said

And when she cried I turned my head
She dreamed her dreams behind closed doors
That made them easy to ignore
And I know, I know
I missed the forest for the trees
And all I have to show
Oh when she walked out the door
Cold facts and nothing more

Repeat Chorus 2x

Before we move on to our East Asian poem for the week, think about some of the lines above. He knows, he knows...a whole lot of little things (memorized names, dates, and details). Good luck with that, Lover Boy. Memorizing layers of temporal detritus will get you nothin'...nowhere.

                        And all I have to show

                        Oh when she walked out the door
                        Cold facts and nothing more

[d] Bye RF
Could there be a better example of what history teachers like moi have been shouting at our classes for two decades now? (Well, yes...many are better, but this will do). For years, I have had to stress that, without the larger theoretical and interpretive picture, all "you" will have will be the "cold facts." These are worthless and, on top of it all, they are not even really "facts." There is no such thing, but that is another issue for another day.

How much clearer, though, could the message be here? S/he  walks right out the door because "you" can't understand how to interpret history. Now those stakes are real. If you blow it in one setting, your teacher gives you a B+. If you blow it in the "real" world, s/he will leave you, and "you" will be a crying, hollow shell of the person "you" once were.

Now that's history.

How can we follow this with an East Asian lyric? Well, it shouldn't be too hard. Chinese, Japanese, and Korean thinkers spent a great deal of time thinking about thinking about the past. I have spent more time than usual looking for a poem, and have chosen a pair of poems by the versatile historian, poet, and administrator Ouyang Xiu (1007-1072). Each touches ever so slightly on our theme, and then takes it in a new direction.

      Ouyang Xiu 1007-1072)
      In Imitation of the "Jade Pavilion" Style, 
      Two Selections
                  A Song of "Hand-in-Hand"
          The sun sets on the dike where I walk,
          As I sing alone the song of "Hand-in-hand."
          Then I remember the one whose hand I once held,
          And everywhere I look, spring is radiant and green.

                    A Song of "Night After Night"
          The drifting clouds disgorge a bright moon,
          Its fleeting shadow darkens the jade staircase.
          A thousand li away we share the same reflection,
          But how can I let you know this heart night after night?
                                               —Translated by Irving Lo

[1]  Wu-chi Liu and Irving Yucheng Lo, Sunflower Splendor: Three Thousand Years of Chinese Poetry (Bloomington IN: Indiana University Press, 1974), 325.

Liu Wu-chi and Irving Yucheng Lo. Sunflower Splendor: Three Thousand Years of Chinese Poetry. Bloomington IN: Indiana University Press, 1974.
[e] Cached RF

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