How do you learn about the past? In all of my classes, we try to let the past speak to us directly by reading primary documents. My favorite of these is the Tale of Genji, the world’s first novel and a book that we read in History 30, East Asian Civilization.
When we read the book, we find that Japanese aristocrats of long ago were very different from the samurai that we know so well from movies. If we judge their tastes and lifestyle by our standards, we will find that Japanese aristocrats were “wussies,” (as one of my students put it), delicate creatures who shed tears over the beauty of a blossom or a few lines of poetry.
If we turn the tables and judge our society by their standards, we’ll find that we are cultural incompetents unable to appreciate or write the poetry that so defined their lives and sensibilities. But we’re great with a spreadsheet or a text message.
History—even the kind that doesn’t solve problems or prevent wars—connects us with people across time, place and culture and helps us see our common humanity.
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I am also one of the department advisors for our chapter of Phi Alpha Theta, the national History Honor Society.