For some reason I was really psyched about the Richard III skeleton thing. I love Shakespeare’s historical plays, and was always fascinated by the War of the Roses. Then today (February 4) I read an article that mentioned

  • He was the last Plantagenet
  • He ruled from 1482 to 1485

The former was not news to me, although it was certainly kept on one of the dustier shelves in my memory; but the second came as a complete shock. It had never occurred to me that the War of the Roses ended around the time of Columbus.

That got me to reflecting upon the disjointed sense of history that I had derived from my formal education. I was taught about various periods, but not in any particular order and with no attempt to bridge one to another. In America, nothing happened between the War of 1812 and the run-up to the Civil War. That’s where American history stopped, possibly because my history teacher was a Civil War buff. By reading ahead in the textbook I gleaned some sense of the Gilded Age, but I couldn’t even tell you if the book got as far as the 20th Century.

In England, history stopped at George III, briefly resumed during the reign of Queen Victoria, and then again resumed when Elizabeth II appeared in my stamp collection.

All I knew about the colonial empires I learned from Kipling and my stamp collection. When I saw the movie The African Queen, the presence of a German warship in Africa baffled me. I had no idea that the Germans ever had a presence in Africa; and all I knew about WW I was that it had something to do with a Kaiser and a lot of people dying.

Oddly enough, the only area where I was given a thorough chronology was pre-Roman history. I had an enthusiastic and entertaining teacher, and of course there weren’t as many dates and battles to remember.

Throughout all of this there was no mention of social movements or economics. Every once in awhile somebody went to war for some reason, as though there were some itch that needed periodic scratching.

Once I got to college, history was taught in a much more nuanced way. I greatly enjoyed a course in English history that ran from the days of the Saxon invasions up to the death of feudalism. Unfortunately, unless you were a history major (which I was not) you still didn’t get a real sense of what was going on in the world from start to finish, end to end.

I could have told you about the rise of bastard feudalism in alarming detail, as that’s what I wrote my term paper on; but I had no idea what was going on in China at the same time. That’s why I’m always fascinated by those timelines in books and on museum walls that compare what was going on in different places at the same time.

As an adult I’ve had time to pick up more of a sense of world history, which gives me an understanding and perspective that I would never have gleaned from my formal education. That’s really a shame, because I suspect that many people aren’t interested enough in history to bother doing that; and without a sense of history it’s pretty hard to make decent decisions about the future. The metaphor “reinvent the wheel” becomes less metaphorical and more literal.