When was history?

Delegates in a convention hold up signs for Oklahoma, Mississippi and West Virginia.  Black and white photo
Republican convention, 1952. Fifty year rule: 2002.   Sixty year rule: 2012


39-year-old History teacher Josh Hoeska had a great idea.  His sixteen-year-old students were to hold a tournament to find out who was the greatest examples of courage in American “history.”  The two finalists involved events that happened in 2001 and 2005.

In other words, their “history” was the Presidency of George Bush Jr.  Most people over thirty might think that these kids were learning current events, and not history.

Besides making you feel old, there might be other objections to using events so recent.  We don’t know the full story yet.  Political bias could flare up.  Debates could get ugly (especially if your students are over 30).

In other words, there’s a line that we sometimes feel we need to draw, to separate the past from the present, or history from current affairs.  But how clear is this line?

Is there a fixed time when we can call something the past?

Recently, I’ve heard of the fifty year rule.  I don’t know where it came from, but it sounds good enough.  Perhaps after fifty years, you’ll no longer be upset that your brother broke your favorite toy, and your sister will forgive you for putting gum in her hair.

Josef Stalin smiles at Winston Churchill as W. Averell Harriman looks on
50 year rule: 1992. Final Obituary rule: 1986

Well, as far as teaching history in school, I think fifty years is far too long to wait.  Imagine if we always used it?  Generation X probably wouldn’t have learned about World War II until college.   The Baby Boomers would have just known what their parents told them, and a lot of parents didn’t like to talk about the war.  We could only talk about Kennedy’s assassination next year.

Sure, there was the popular media, but what if the popular media used the 50 year rule too?  We would be making documentaries about the Second World War, for the first time, during the break up of Yugoslavia.

(As the conflict in Yugoslavia was happening, we were hearing that people were still fighting over things that happened fifty years, or more, beforehand.  These conflicts were kept quiet by half a century of totalitarian rule.  The fifty year rule did not calm tempers in that part of the world.  Generations later, history can become current affairs again.)

Well, maybe we would not be hearing about the Second World War for the first time in 1995.  Some old movies, old photos, and other memories would be shown to us.  But a kid with a history textbook written after 1995 would have been born to parents who didn’t study it in school (and were too young to live through it), would have teachers who didn’t study it in school, and even the textbook would have probably been written by someone who was new to it.  An advantage would be that the war was fresh to all of them.  The disadvantage would be that the Baby Boomers would have had no foundation of knowledge to build upon before they taught their students.

Likewise, Lincoln would be first talked about when America was considering entering World War I.  Fifty years after the Confederates surrendered and Lincoln was assassinated, Birth of a Nation came out.  While that film didn’t stray very much from the official line on the war, its coverage of the period after the war was being presented to an ignorant audience.

Okay, so that may be an extreme application of the fifty year rule that no one really wants.    We don’t really want any generation to be ignorant of what happened during their parent’s generation, and to only look at the lives of their grandparents.  (Although my grandmother was a great storyteller, and I’m extremely happy that she taught me so much about what it was like to live in the great depression fifty years after it happened.)

When I was a kid, I had a sort of fifty year rule, only it was much shorter.  Anything significant that happened before I was born, or when I was too young to remember, was history.   (What was significant is another story.)

So, to a sixteen year old, I suppose Bush Jr. qualifies as history.  Similarly, President Obama will be history to many young children in a few years time.  (His election campaign of 2008 already is.)

Technically, an event is already in the past before it goes to press.  As they say in the film Foreign Correspondent (Alfred Hitchcock:1940), journalists are writing the first draft of “history.”

Yet, even though the last decade may be history to school kids and Hitchcock, it could still be considered current events by us bickering adults.  The discussion of an event can provoke strong emotions in those who lived through it.

Is history then linked to living memory?

Our story changes as we learn new facts from these witnesses.

Evan Frankl, M.Ed., who wrote on the 1964 election 30 years after it happened, said he’d write a different article today.  More information has come to light, and the story probably will continue change.  “Maybe history starts when everyone involved in an event is dead?” he asks.  Mr. Frankl spoke of that interesting netherworld (or “netherland”) between history and current events, and how he taught this along with “history.”  The subject of the surrounding conversation, again, was the presidency of George W. Bush (Jr.)

I’m currently writing a book about men who lived in the shadows of Jefferson, Napoleon, Selim III, and Nelson. Some of the events did not become public until after the people who wrote them were dead.  These included personal letters, diaries and ship journals.

Likewise, until recently, I could have meet people with a personal memory of and, theoretically, interviewed a veteran of World War I.  Does that mean that the “great war” only became history this year?  Perhaps it’s not history yet, as their journals haven’t been found.

I’m glad we don’t wait to put events in our history books.

The other day, as I was working on an article, my daughter saw me type the words “Martin Luther.”

Then, she told me the story of Martin Luther King Jr, who she learned about in school.  She also told me how Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus, how people were being mean to her just because of what she looked like.

Children of different backgrounds on a school bus, shot in 1973
School busing story. 50 year rule: 2023. Final Obituary rule: ?

One story led to another, and I learned a primary school view of different religions and how different people use different words to mean basically the same thing.  (I also like it when they teach me about medieval Welsh heroes I never heard of.  Old stuff is fascinating when it’s new to you.)

Rosa Parks only died recently, so if we had a fifty year rule, I wouldn’t have learned about her in school.  I would have known Martin Luther King Jr. from the Cosby show perhaps, but the segments of the famous “I have a dream” speech in popular culture might not have meant as much to me had we not learnt about it in the classroom.

Perhaps we could have netherworld lessons in history class, with the teacher instructing us to keep an open mind on stories that are too recent for us to know all the facts.

Though my big project is about events that finished 200 years ago, I love hearing a teacher speak about this “netherworld between history and current events”, those who lived through history can really bring it to life.

Related: Recording history before time runs out.