Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Genealogy is History Made Personal

If you are one of those people who considers yourself a history buff, I can't possibly say anything about this topic that would be news to you. But for us unfortunate, former-haters-of-history—the ones forever scarred by the public school repackaging of the subject of history—perhaps you can relate.

History was not my strong suit in high school. I got by, of course, but hated every minute of it. As for my current feelings about the topic of history, I owe my reversal of opinion to genealogy. If it weren't for pursuing the life stories of my ancestors—and then trying to figure out how to park these people in the context of history's bigger picture—I would never have given history a second thought. Genealogy made history come alive for me.

When I began teaching, myself, it was quite tempting to handle the topic of history as if it were one big, rolling, panoramic soap opera. There was always something inserting itself into the status quo, wedging its disruptive self into the narrative. And the story line never unfolded on one solitary stage—history was more like a three ring circus, where the narrator constantly interrupted the plot to intone, "Meanwhile, back on the ranch..."

Despite this panoply of events in the unfolding timeline of worldwide activity, I was always sensitized to the risk of making history institutionalized. I dreaded leaving my students with the same sense of dislike of the subject as I had experienced in my own schooling. So it was with delight that I stumbled upon the realization that I could use my students' own family members to transform the subject into something more pertinent to them.

The simple exercise of learning what wars various students' great-grandparents served in was an eye opener. On one hand, this served as research training: knowing that my daughter's second great grandfather may have served in the Civil War—we're still unsure about those reports—has prompted a search through online records in an attempt to prove or disprove an obituary claim. On the other hand, it's served as inspiration to learn details: I've seen some of her peers, back during those middle school years, put together—with gusto—interesting displays of the battles in which their own ancestor actually fought.

In this past week, as I meandered through various loose ends in my own research—finding prompts in everything from the de Saussure connection in my collateral lines to the family connection to the namesake of a college stadium—it reminded me that genealogy has once again taken me on a whirlwind tour through history. If I can just remember to follow up on the questions prompted by the material I stumble upon, it inevitably guides me through some stage of history, some story about developing ideas and their impact on the course of history, leaving me with the sense of our very existence being nestled within the arms of history.

Whether any of us likes that study of history or not, it is an inescapable part of our very existence. The sooner we forsake our school-days distaste of the rote learning of dates and events, and break through that barrier to recognize the symbiotic relationship between our lives and the greater picture of the culture in which we move and breathe, the sooner we appreciate the role history takes on in shepherding us through the narrative of the ancestors we seek in our genealogical research.


  1. I always liked history, not the dates and memorization so much but what happened and the stories:)

    1. Seems in my New York high school's rush to teach to the test (the Regents' exams), we never got to those least, not the interesting ones. It seemed history class was one big litany of wars and dates of people dying :(

  2. I'm with Far Side - and add to the learning about the events - something more insightful - like what can learn from them.

    For instance, learning WWI took place and perhaps about when (early 1900s) is fine - but what might that horror teach us?

  3. I have always loved history but my family history research really brought it alive. I love the image of one big panoramic soap opera interrupted by "meanwhile, back at the ranch." Too true.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...