History can change your life

Doris Kearns Goodwin
Doris Kearns Goodwin

“Why do we have to study history?” students will often ask. Even in my English classes they asked it.

This old complaint, typically whined, came back to me when my wife Toni, friends visiting from Korea and I recently attended Indiana-Purdue University’s first of the season Omnibus lecture by popular historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.

I wish my long-ago students could have attended Goodwin’s talk. Maybe they would have had a better opinion of studying history. They would have heard her tell of the great personal challenges in his personal life that Abe Lincoln faced. They would have heard about how a weakly asthmatic like Teddy Roosevelt fought to overcome his illness.

There was much more. Goodwin reminded us of FDR’s polio. That he was elected president four times. That he brought the country out of the Great Depression. That he led the country for most of World War II.

Teddy Roosevelt fought against economy-stiffling trusts. He was a Republican to be sure. But he was a progressive, not imaginable in today’s GOP move to the far right. In a later era, his cousin Franklin introduced a variety of social programs that gave meaningful work to lots of people. Above all, he introduced Social Security. That lifted millions out of desperate poverty. It remains the most important social program of the last century.

When you’re talking about presidential leadership, you’re never far away from Lincoln, whom Doris Kearns Goodwin called the greatest president of all. She noted a special quality, a humanity about Lincoln that made him unique.

I should mention that she had much praise for Eleanor Roosevelt, Teddy’s niece. Her advocacy on behalf of the poor went way beyond speeches. She visited families in the rural parts of the country. She witnessed desperate poverty first-hand and lobbied her husband on their behalf.

So I return to my students’ question: Why study history? First, history is a terrific story. No matter what kind of stories excite you, the history of our country is filled with suspense, mystery, tragedy and inspiration.

Second, study history to learn about the origins and evolution of the human story. Who first settled your town? What were their origins? How did they earn a living? Who started the wars? Who ended them? And how?

Third, we study history to learn about the origins of current laws and political controversies. Here’s where you can get all sides and figure out where you stand, based on the arguments and evidence.

Finally, we study history to learn from the towering personalities, such as Lincoln, the Roosevelts, as well as the more contemporary leaders such as the Kennedys and the Clintons.

These leaders can be extraordinary role models, people whose values might well be worth adopting. Their behavior gives us insights into human nature, the good and the bad. Such a study can show us the potential for changing our own goals and ambitions, even our careers.

Why study history? No, it won’t train you for a good job. It won’t help you find a life-long mate. It won’t get you money. It won’t win you fame.

But studying history can help you become a better person. It can give you a cause. It can spark your interest in a thousand things. I promise you, studying history can change your life.

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Three Roosevelts


TeddyRooseveltI can’t remember when I’ve enjoyed a television series as much as Ken Burns’ week-long stories about the Roosevelts, Teddy, Franklin and Eleanor.

If I were teaching American history today, I’d sure find a way to put this TV series into the course of study, even make it the centerpiece of 20th Century America.

Hats off to PBS which broadcast the series. And hats off to Burns’ masterful and engaging presentation of these extraordinary lives who contributed so much to the creation of America as we know it today.

It’s hard to realize that Teddy Roosevelt was known as a Progressive Republican, surely a liberal by today’s standards. Unlike so many Republicans today, Teddy was no pawn of Big Business. Rather, he was one of the early trust-busters. As viewers of the portrait were reminded, Teddy took on the moneyed interests of his time.

We recall him as the president who pushed through the creation of the Panama Canal. Before that, he led the Rough Riders to liberate Cuba from the Spanish.

What especially inspired me was how this earlier Roosevelt overcame a childhood of various illnesses including asthma. He would physically challenge himself, boxing, swimming long distances. Today, we might call him a depressive. But Burns shows how Teddy drove himself physically and intellectually to keep what Churchill would call years later “the black dog of depression” in the closet.

TR greatly expanded our national parks. He proved a foreign policy magician, even negotiating a peace treaty between Russia and Japan. He won the Nobel Peace Prize. He devoured books and wrote a number himself.

Like his world-changing cousin, Franklin Roosevelt overcame great hardship. Stricken with polio in his late 30s, he managed to keep his braces out of sight to public. Journalists honored the ruse that FDR appeared to be standing unaided. He was elected to the presidency four times, each time during a period of great national crisis, first the Great Depression, then a World War.

When I was a boy, I heard much complaining from Dad’s family about President Roosevelt. They were all Republicans. But they didn’t complain how FDR maneuvered the country out of its isolation as the Nazis were sinking British merchant ships and bombing London neighborhoods. The American president, even before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, offered ships and other aid to the British through “lend-lease.” After Pearl Harbor, the Germans declared war on the United States. Along with allies, with the Normandy invasion, the U.S. launched the greatest invasion in history.

Ken Burns relates all this with the drama of yesterday’s newsreel at the movies. FDR, despite the wealth and privilege he came from, proved to be a great champion of the poor and the middle class. He led the country in an assault on the poverty that had a third of the nation unemployed. He introduced a number of work programs, even putting artists to work, leaving a legacy of art for future generations to enjoy.

Probably the greatest and most profound program he launched was Social Security. As the TV series mentioned this, I was taken back years ago when I was at my grandparents’ home in Northwest Ohio. Somebody came to the house to sign them up for this government program that would mean so much to them and to the rest of the country.

Burns tells the story of the two Roosevelt presidents with all the virtues and their faults. You could almost feel FDR’s cruelties in Eleanor’s face as she struggled to deal with her husband’s dalliances with various young women. Even more admirable, though, Mrs. Roosevelt became such a champion of the poor, blacks and women. She wrote a regular newspaper column and gave radio talks. The country has seen none like her since.

She traveled among the poor in rural counties of the South and the slums in big cities. She visited with those struggling to survive in shacks with little food to feed their children. Some years after FDR’s death, she rose to speak at a Democratic convention on behalf of Gov. Adlai Stevenson. She was a delegate at the creation of the United Nations. She led the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. No one else since has received a standing ovation from the General Assembly.

I have only a vague recollection of FDR. He died at Warm Springs, Ga., before I was in the first grade. But I do recall Eleanor. I read her newspaper columns. Burns’ series recalled her distinctive voice I often heard in newsreels during my college years. She died in 1962, bringing an end to the Roosevelt’s dominance as a family in American life.

Yet because of them, we’re a better country.

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