Genealogy from the perspective of a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon, LDS)

Monday, August 31, 2015

There is history and then there is family history

The title to this blog post is "There is history and then there is family history." This is part of a complete statement that says, "There is history and then there is family history and they are actually the same thing." The only difference is that family historians seldom look beyond the dates, names and sometimes, places and historians seldom care about those historical figures that seem ordinary and unimportant. The two categories are mostly artificially maintained by those who emphasize their own agenda. Let me give you a few examples. Here are some questions about some prominent American historical figures. Let's see if you can answer any of the questions.

  • Who was George Washington? This is not a trick question and I am referring to the one that first comes to mind.
  • Who was George Washington's wife? 
  • Can you name any of George Washington's children?
If you did happen to know something about George Washington, why would questions about his family seem unimportant and why would that be missing from your previous studies? 

I may have mentioned this before, but when I was taking U.S. history in high school, we never got past the U.S. Civil War. In all my 21 or so years of formal schooling, I never had a history class that covered events in the 20th Century. What little formal schooling I had about world history, ignored any events that occurred outside of Europe. However, since I studied Spanish at the university level and was a military intelligence officer for Central and South America, I learned a lot about the history of Latin America. Everything else I know about history came from reading books. 

Now, from the other end of the historical perspective, I had about five years of formal, university level classes in genealogy from Brigham Young University focused on North American genealogy. Anything else I have learned has come from reading books, articles, attending conferences, etc. 

What is remarkable about these two experiences is that in the history classes, I never heard a word about genealogy; in the genealogy classes, I barely heard anything about history. Why is this remarkable? They both use exactly the same sources for their information except the "historians" ignore the "purely genealogical" records and the genealogists ignore everything that is not "purely genealogical" in nature. Well, with any generalization, there are exceptions. We do have a few formally trained historians who become interested in genealogy and we do have genealogists who become interested in history. However, just because someone has advanced degrees in history does not mean diddle about their interest in or knowledge of genealogy. Likewise, my experience is that the vast majority of those people from the United States, even those supposedly interested in genealogy, have only the most rudimentary knowledge of history. Once in a while, I will find someone who knows both but they are the rare exception. 

Some of my grandchildren have already started back to school and a few are now attending the university. Except for a few vague classes in "Social Studies" they have no classes in history and of course, genealogy is never mentioned. Now, I suppose, that I since I am sitting here in Provo, I could register (even at my age) for classes at the Brigham Young University and study (even obtain a degree) in Family History. But job prospects (at my age again) would be rather dim or I could just keep on doing what I always do and that is read books about genealogy and history. 

Whenever I think about this subject, I always remember the class I taught to a group of prospective missionaries at the Mesa FamilySearch Library. I was talking about the types of records that might be used to find their ancestors and asked when the ancestors lived. Someone mentioned the mid-1800s and I asked what happened in the United States in 1862 to 1865? After asking the question a number of different ways, I realized that none of the class members had any idea when the U.S. Civil War occurred. In fact, most of them did not seem to know there was a Civil War. This may seem like an extreme example, but it is not at all unusual. How can we pretend to do "family history" and ignore the history part?

I am certainly not alone in my concern about the state of knowledge about history in the United States. Here is a quote from an organization called the Pioneer Institute on Public Policy Research entitled, "Shortchanging the Future: The Crisis of History and Civics in American Schools," by Robert Pondiscio, Gilbert T. Sewall, and Sandra Stotsky. 
The collective grasp of basic history and civics among American students is alarmingly weak. Beyond dispiriting test results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress and other measures, poor performance in history and civics portends a decay of the knowledge, skills, and dispositions needed for a lifetime of active, engaged citizenship. The reasons for this decline are many: the amount of time devoted to history in K-12 education has demonstrably shrunk over time; demands to make curriculum more inclusive have led schools and teachers to dwell on social history, race, and gender in ways that distort the nation’s historical narrative. These changes are in turn reflected in textbooks and teaching materials used in social studies classrooms. Problems with teacher training and qualification compound the problem, leaving teachers poorly equipped to arrest the decline in history and civics. Past efforts to arrest or reverse the decline, however well intentioned, have had little discernible impact. Attempts to create national history standards have failed, and great caution must be exercised before further efforts are made to write or impose such standards. 
I recently examined the "Social Studies" book used by one of my granddaughters and was appalled at the lack of "history." The entire book was devoted to race and gender issues.

Now, what does this mean to those interested in family history? It means that the collective lack of knowledge about history creates a major disability of the average person in the U.S. from doing adequate research in their own family history.

Where do we start? Let's start by reading a history book or two or more about the countries where your ancestors lived. Let's find out what happened around the time our ancestors lived. Perhaps once we know the history, finding them and learning about them will become a natural consequence. History is about people and what they did and how they lived. Genealogy is about people and what they did and how they lived. Let's learn and remember the "history" part of family history.

Now, if your reaction is that "I am not interested in history" and I don't read books. Then how can you expect to be interested in and find out anything about family HISTORY?

1 comment:

  1. You are so right. Public education and University curriculum have been dumbed down significantly. After 34 years of teaching, I decided to retire when it became clear that the A.P. English tests I was preparing my students to take had been dumbed down, leaving out all poetry. The selections were, as you point out, multi-cultural literature, which in my professional opinion is just not great literature. When I wrote the AP College Board asking about the lowering of standards, they replied with an article from a magazine pointing out that minority students could not get into college because they couldn't pass AP tests. So across the board, standards were lowered. That's not what I signed up for, so I retired! So it is not just history that's lacking.