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The Importance of History and Value of the Past

Monday 13 March 2017 at 10:36 pm.

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for March 9, 2017, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            One of my college roommates who went on to become a successful big city newspaper editor, was not the least bit interested in history. He didn’t like to talk about the past, he wanted only to talk about “now.” In the case of journalism, considering the impact the electronic media has had on it in recent years, maybe my friend would not have gained much by studying the past.

            But I think the past, and not just the recent past, but also the historical past, is one of the most important resources we have. It is my opinion that history is the most important subject that should be taught in public schools, both American history and world history. There are college kids who don’t know who our first President was, they don’t know that a “king” is a “monarch,” and they think the “electoral college” is a college similar to a junior college. Thomas Jefferson said a democracy wouldn’t work unless we had an educated populace.

            As someone who loves history and sees the importance of history in his life, I have difficulty understanding an indifference to, and avoidance of, studying the past. My appetite for the past has always come in segments, so to speak, based on where I am and what I am doing in my life. As a college student studying drama and English literature, I had a passionate love of the works of William Shakespeare (as strange as that may seem to some folks). As a consequence, my favorite history at that time was English history, and my favorite eras were the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603) and the reign of King James I (1603-1615) in England (wasn’t interested in his previous reign as King of Scotland). Those two monarchs played an important role in his life in the theatre and in Shakespeare’s development as a playwright. I even wrote my Master’s thesis on Shakespeare’s Henry plays.

            In recent years, having developed a renewed interest in my German-Wendish ancestors, I have become totally immersed in the history of the 19th Century, both world and American. All of my great grandparents came to Texas from Germany during various years between the 1850’s and the 1880’s. My Wendish great grandfather, who fascinates me the most, arrived in Serbin, Texas in 1870, just in time to help refurbish the old Lutheran church in Serbin.

            When Great Grandpa Johann came over, Queen Victoria was the reigning monarch in England, Wilhem I was the Kaiser of the North German Confederation (Johann lived in Saxony), Czar Nicholas II was the monarch of Russia, and Ulysses S. Grant was the President of the United States. The American Civil War was over by the time Johann came to America, but a couple of my great grandparents were already in Texas during the Civil War (1861-1865) .

            It is interesting to note that the Russian Czar, Alexander II, freed the Russian serfs during his reign, 1855-1881; and that the freeing of the slaves in America took place about the same time. Russian estate owners literally “owned” their serfs, just as American plantation owners “owned” their slaves. The Emancipation Proclamation was issued by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, and the Thirteenth Amendment passed and ratified in 1865.

            It is also interesting that the most outspoken voice in freeing the slaves in America was our President, Abe Lincoln, whereas, in Russia, the loudest voice was not Czar Alexander II, but Count Leo Tolstoy, whose “spiritual” writings stirred the conscience of Russia. Both Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., said they were influenced by the ideas of Leo Tolstoy.

            While Mark Twain and Walt Whitman were famous American writers during this era, the most famous Russian writers, in addition to Tolstoy, were Anton Chekhov and Ivan Turgenev. Being quite familiar with the life and writings of Twain and Whitman, I have recently been studying the Russian writers during this turbulent time in world history leading to the freeing of enslaved peoples. Of the three Russians, my favorite is Chekhov, who, by the way was also a medical doctor who never stopped practicing medicine, -- even when his writing took up so much time it was difficult keeping up his practice as a physician. Chekhov learned a lot about what not to do in treating patients with tuberculosis and syphilis (the common treatment for venereal disease at the time was mercury and that was as bad or worse than the disease). People learn from the errors of the past what to do in the future.

            Tolstoy disliked physicians, and had no respect for them; in contrast, not only was Chekhov eager to pursue research in medicine, he was an outstanding doctor of his times. However, the mid and late 19 Century was an era in the history of medicine when there was no cure for many diseases, including tuberculosis and syphilis, and it was very difficult to bring conditions like peritonitis, phlebitis, and scarlet fever under control. You can imagine what the medical care situation was like in Lee County, Texas, at that time in history. In fact, as late as the 1940’s, we still had no doctor in Dime Box.

            History is important, and the past teaches us a lot.


 Ray Spitzenberger serves as pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Wallis, after retiring from Wharton County Junior College, where he taught English and speech and served as chairman of Communications and Fine Arts for many years.

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