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Notes from the Reeves Chair: Current Events: History at Work

Written by Jeffrey Hammond, Professor English and George B. and Willma Reeves Endowed Chair in the Liberal Arts

Every Friday our ninth-grade Civics class held a “current events” quiz. Anyone who failed to answer a question about that week’s news was eliminated – and the winner, if I remember correctly, received a candy bar.

My memory of the prize is hazy because I never won. Having recently gotten obsessed with ancient history, I had stopped reading the newspaper because it never said anything about Egypt, Greece, or Rome. Convinced that the news of the day amounted to little more than gossip, I considered these quizzes to be a flat waste of time. Why learn stuff that didn’t matter and kept changing anyway?

On Fridays my ignorance of the news went on full display. Where did the Secretary of State travel this past Tuesday? I didn’t know. What silentera movie star died on Wednesday? I didn’t know. In what Ohio city is a new bridge being built? I didn’t know. The quiz seemed rigged against me: if we were being asked about Tutankhamen or Alexander the Great, I’d be hip-deep in Baby Ruths instead of getting eliminated in the first round.

Because I did well in other subjects, my current-events cluelessness struck my classmates as a hilarious novelty; week after week, my poor performance prompted gales of laughter. I pretended that I didn’t mind playing the role of Friday’s class clown, but deep down, those quizzes started to bother me. Playing the clown was one thing, but actually being a clown – as I knew myself to be – was another thing altogether.

Lunch period came after Civics, and one day our teacher, Mr. King, asked me to stay after class for a chat. We had eaten lunch together before: a fellow ancient history buff, he liked talking about Egyptian religion, Babylonian astrology, and Roman military tactics. But when I got my lunch from my locker and returned to the classroom, Mr. King seemed unusually quiet. After several awkward minutes of silent eating, he came to the point. How could someone who was so interested in the past take so little interest in what was happening now?

I didn’t have a real answer, except to claim that ancientJeffrey Hammond history was a lot more exciting than the boring stuff going on today. Then he asked what seemed like an odd question: “What do you think history is?” I stammered something about history being a record of things that happened in the past. “OK,” he replied, “but when did the past end? When did history stop happening?”

* * *
As I mulled things over for the rest of the day, I began to see that the past never did end. One thing led to another, then another, and then another in an endless chain that stretched all the way from ancient times to now. I had been wrong to cut history off at the fall of Rome so I could study it from a safe distance. History was still happening.

This meant, of course, that history included me. I was an American because failures in crop production had forced my father’s ancestors to emigrate from the British Isles to Pennsylvania in the early 19th century. Dad grew up in downstate Illinois because his great-grandfather had gone west to find cheap land. I was an Ohioan because Dad had left Illinois to take a job at an oil refinery two states to the east. My mother grew up in southwest Minnesota. When her family’s dry-goods store went under during the Great Depression, they moved to Illinois, where she met my father. This nomadic history was embedded in our family’s voices. Dad spoke with a nasal drawl, like my Illinois cousins; Mom’s speech was faster and more clipped, almost musical. We kids didn’t talk like either of our parents because we didn’t live in Illinois or Minnesota.

And so it went. Everything that happened in the past made something else happen – and whatever was happening now would make something else happen in the future. If history was a never-ending process, then my beloved emperors and pharaohs were connected, somehow, to that new bridge in Cincinnati (I looked it up that weekend). The phrase “current events” had fooled me, because it obscured the fact that today’s news was only the tip of a very deep – and very old – iceberg. If I really loved history, I needed to understand how history worked. And in order to do that, I needed to know what was happening today.

* * *
That lunchtime chat took place on a Thursday. I know this because we had another current events quiz the next day. This time, though, I made some history of my own by finally answering a question correctly. When my turn came, Mr. King was smiling mysteriously as he looked up from an index card. “This week,” he began, “a bus carrying a well known band got into a minor accident. Jeff, in what state did this accident occur?” My grinning classmates turned to face me, eager for their weekly laugh. As usual I didn’t know, so I asked for a hint.

“I’ll give you the name of the band,” he replied. “It’s Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians.” Something in Mr. King’s voice told me that he was giving me a chance to shed my reputation for current-events ignorance. “Where did they have their accident?”

“Um . . . Pennsylvania?”

Judging from the volume of cheers, you might have thought that I had just discovered the computational end of Pi. I knew that those cheers were mostly sarcastic. Still, it felt great not to be Friday’s clown for a change. That weekend I started to read the Toledo Blade again – though now with fresh eyes. How could I have fallen into the habit of skipping this daily summary of tomorrow’s past? Clearly, only a real clown would choose to ignore so compelling a thing as history unfolding before his very eyes.