Who Cares About History?

Don’t we all have friends, classmates, or even family members who proudly proclaim how much they hated studying history in school? “It’s so boring,” they wail, “just a bunch of dates, and battles, and dead people.”

As someone who has loved history all her life, this viewpoint has always been a mystery to me. History is filled with so much more than dates, and battles, and boring dead people. It’s filled with stories. In fact, it’s filled with some of the best stories you can find anywhere. Period.  And I’m not the only one who thinks so.

In his commencement address delivered to Harvard’s Class of 2016 this past May, director Steven Spielberg explained why so many of his films are based on historical events. “We have so many stories to tell,” he noted. “Talk to your parents and your grandparents, if you can, and ask them about their stories. And I promise you, like I have promised my kids, you will not be bored. And that’s why I so often make movies based on real-life events. I look to history not to be didactic, ‘cause that’s just a bonus, but I look because the past is filled with the greatest stories that have ever been told. Heroes and villains are not literary constructs, but they’re at the heart of all history.”

Then Spielberg went further. He reminded the new graduates that while his job is to create a “world that lasts for two hours,” theirs is to create a world that will last forever. What’s more, he asserted, “the way you create a better future is by studying the past.”

So history is not only entertaining, but also relevant and essential. For those who dismissed history back in sixth grade, I would suggest that even a cursory look at current headlines, or popular offerings in Netflix, will support Spielberg’s assertions.

The best media coverage of the current election frequently turns to history to provide perspective, whether it be an analysis of electoral college vote counts in past presidential elections, or (as in a recent New York Times article) a discussion of how Hillary Clinton’s choice of a white pantsuit for her acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention linked her not only to former Vice Presidential Nominee Geraldine Ferraro, but also to Alice Paul and the National Woman’s Party (their colors were white, purple, and gold).

Over the past year, we have seen protests on college campuses that vividly demonstrate just how relevant the past is. Who would have guessed, for example, that Princeton University students would be protesting about Woodrow Wilson? Or that Georgetown University would be confronting a legacy rooted in slavery that has implications for the present and future? And then, of course, there is the whole Hamilton phenomenon.

There are more arguments to be made that demonstrate the importance of history and why many of us do, and all of us should, care about it. Hopefully we will be able to explore them all here in this new digital home for all things New Jersey history. In the meantime, I encourage you to do two things right now. First, get to know the History Relevance Campaign (www.historyrelevance.com),  a national effort to raise awareness of, and therefore support for, history. Second, spread the word about how essential history is to all of us. Talk to elected officials about the importance of history, both in terms of historic preservation and education; encourage your local schools to participate in National History Day so that more students can benefit from the skills and knowledge they will gain from this excellent program; work to strengthen local history organizations, and ensure that they are included in larger community planning and development decisions; share your belief in the power of history with business leaders, local foundations, and private donors, and encourage them to begin or continue supporting history programs and institutions. Of course, this list can go on and on; the critical element here is action, in whatever form you can manage it.

So, who cares about history? Well, Steven Spielberg does, and I do. My guess is that you do too. Our task now is to share that passion with everyone else.

Sara Cureton serves as Executive Director of the New Jersey Historical Commission and New Jersey Cultural Trust.