Friday, August 6, 2010

A World History Curriculum for One

I might have developed a love of history sooner if the curriculum had focused on the men and women who were the instruments of change. If I'd learned about events from their perspectives instead of memorizing battle dates. But back in the seventh grade, the homework assigned by Sr. Jane Francis included memorizing the “nutshell” at the end of each chapter in our history books. A sure way to deaden any budding interest.

The RKO Pathe Newsreels shown in movie theatres were the only time where you could see famous figures actually move. They gave us our first close ups of Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman, England’s Winston Churchill as well as Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Josef Stalin.

Then came live television in the early 1950s and I became fascinated with news broadcasts “Live from Washington” or “Live from London” or “Live from Cairo.” The world became increasingly smaller.

At home, I watched the Kefauver hearings on organized crime and the McCarthy hearings that inflamed America with Senator McCarthy’s pronouncements that communists were infiltrating the United States government.

I always looked forward to Sunday afternoons when CBS presented “You Are There.” Narrated by Walter Cronkite, the live show re-enacted historical moments with the actors portraying historic figures - Julius Caesar or George Washington or Galileo - who addressed the camera to explain what was happening. And at the end of each episode Cronkite would say these words: “What kind of day has it been? A day like all days filled with those events that alter and illuminate our times and you are there.”

I was a child during World War II and grew up knowing only the more publicized events. Movies filled in some gaps - “The Longest Day,” “Battle Cry,” “Stalag 17,” The “Guns of Navarone” and more.

But mainly, all I knew about the war in England was the Blitz and Winston Churchill’s role. Though I knew the basics, I had never given much thought to how the people in England braced for a potential invasion of Nazi forces.

I’ve taken to educating myself. I learned more about the hundreds of children who were evacuated from London to protect them from the Blitz, and how their parents must have suffered to see them put on a train and taken to homes distant from London. A wonderful rendition of the evacuation may be seen in the BBC drama “Good Night, Mister Tom.”

Recently I watched five seasons of “Foyle’s War,” a mystery drama series that was presented on PBS beginning in 2003. I’ve just caught up with it through Netflix. In each episode a crime is committed and the inscrutable Detective Inspector Christopher Foyle solves the murder or espionage. What makes this series memorable for me is that the writer Anthony Horowitz includes in each episode a factual account of preparations for war on the southern coast of England: how the wealthy escaped London and holed up in majestic country homes; how a chemical warfare plant had been established nearby unbeknownst to the townspeople; how map makers designed the targets in Germany for the RAF; the bravery of pilots taking off from airfields that were built on farmland for the Spitfire planes.

Following Foyle’s War I rented “Into the Storm,” a film made for television last year. It depicts Winston Churchill’s time as prime minister during World War II and the decisions and plans made in those years.

At the end of the film are these memorable words of Winston Churchill:

In War: Resolution
In Defeat: Defiance
In Victory: Magnanimity
In Peace: Goodwill

Just recently, I watched Ken Burns’ "The War," an extremely comprehensive look at World War II from the perspective of all those involved: the American forces, the families left behind, the townspeople who staffed factories, the Japanese units and African American units who also fought despite prevalent racism.

The history curriculum I’ve designed for myself is never-ending. My syllabus also contains a long list of books on World War II, including a biography of Winston Churchill and another that delves into all aspects of the war in Europe and in the Pacific. One page turns into the next. Soon it will be time to explore other times and places, wherever my interest takes me. Perhaps the Balkans, as I plan a trip there in the near future.

I’ve discovered that one of the joys of aging is a deepening interest in how our world came to be the place it is today. As I try to compare the events of today with those of the past, I appreciate more deeply the work, the talent, the dedication of the individuals who try to make it a better place for us all.