J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

One Random Fact About Me

A couple weeks back, a Boston 1775 reader with the Revolutionary nom de blog Hercules Mulligan “tagged” me with a meme, which is the fancy modern term for a sort of chain letter combined with “truth or dare.” In this case, the meme requested bloggers to post “8 random facts about themselves” and to “tag 8 other people.”

I sat on that for a while, trying to decide how to respond. And I finally decided that, flattered as I might feel, I don’t think folks come to Boston 1775 to find out eight random things about me, or even five. (And wasn’t this meme five things just a few weeks ago?) Nor could I identify eight other people I’d feel brave enough to tag in turn. (At least through this blog.) But I also realized I could share one important fact about me that holds some relevance to studying early American history.

I went to a college with a terrific History Department. Among the professors on campus during my undergraduate years were Edmund S. Morgan, John Demos, William Cronon, David Brion Davis, Harry S. Stout, Jon Butler, and many others who didn’t happen to write about early American history. And from them I learned...nothing.

That’s because I didn’t take any U.S. history classes. I took other history classes, to be sure, from ancient Sumer to the soon-to-expire Cold War. I took lots of classes in other fields: literature, history of art, history of science, astronomy, psychology, early film, several-variable calculus, probability. (I especially enjoyed probability.) I ended up in the college’s special Humanities Major, which I described as “for people who couldn’t make up their minds.” The program was actually quite structured, but it offered the advantage of letting me take nearly any course.

I thought I had much more to learn about the history of other countries and more distant times than about something that seemed as familiar as the American Revolution. Especially since I grew up in New England during the Bicentennial, I thought the start of the Revolution around here had been studied so thoroughly that there was little more to learn.

That choice of college major was right for me at the time. I learned a great deal. A general humanities education served me well as a book editor, the career I chose right out of college. There were very few courses I regret having sat through. But, looking back, I also regret missing the chance to learn from some of those fine historians. Then again, was I ready for them at the time?

So what’s the lesson there? Perhaps never to assume that there’s “little more to learn” about any major topic—and never to assume that it’s too late to start.

1 comment:

NJDave said...

Well, I for one, Thank you for coming to that conclusion. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog, daily.

If I had listened to only my American History teachers, I would have believed only 2 events happened in 1775 -- by spontaeous combustion, of course. Now I can immerse myself in the tapestry of a society, full of human flaws and emotion, building for war against its corrupt, parent government.

Its the difference between a 3"x5" B&W photograph, and a movie on a 65" HD TV and in surround sound.