History and the polymath
We are all born ignorant, but it takes a lot of hard word to remain stupid.
I have a friend in Tokyo who thinks I am a polymath, a person who knows everything. Or, at least, a person who can quickly call upon a wide variety of knowledge in different fields of learning to apply to complex problems. I am not. I know enough trivia to impress people at parties or, at least, to impress him. Trivia is interesting, but it’s not very important. The famous Jeopardy TV show that showcased trivia nurtured a confusion by pedaling the idea among television audiences that knowledge of trivia reflected intelligence. But the opposite is true, and some might say that Jeopardy was symptomatic of everything wrong with our education system instead. In addition, I keep up with current events - something which my friend steadfastly ignores. Often when I talk to him about current events he thinks what I am reporting sounds so fantastic that he’s convinced I’m lying. But reality is stranger than fiction and the scariest thing is that so much that sounds fantastic is really factually true, and anyone who reads a newspaper ought to know it.
My favorite school subject was History, and I figure that all of human history - I mean our history as a species, which is a hundred thousand years or so rather than our history as a civilization, which is only about six thousand years - is such a negligible amount of time compared to the geologic history of the Earth, which is about four billion years, that all of our history is still current or contemporary. In other words, realistically speaking there is no past tense regarding human beings’ activity in the world. Not yet, anyway. The entire human panorama is still current. So there ought not to be an insurmountable obstacle to remembering a great deal of it because it ought to be inhabiting our short term memory, not our long term memory, and available for easy recall. So retention of a lot of information should not be a problem since it is all - basically - news. I can understand people not being fluent with the details of history, but to be ignorant of its outline requires deliberate sloth. It’s a frank admission that you really don’t know anything at all. Ten years, one hundred years, or one thousand years ago do not properly fit my notion of “long ago.” Now, a million years gone by, then you’re starting to talk about some serious passage of time.
Imagine twenty centenarians sitting in front of you right now. That is the amount of human life that separates us from Spartacus, Jesus Christ, and Caesar Augustus.
The entire scope of recorded human history is nothing more than family history. Every human currently alive, and everyone who has ever lived are literally related to each other. Literally, not figuratively or metaphorically. The outstanding personalities of history are like a collection of really ripe fruit on the family tree while the rest of us ordinary people are the leaves surrounding them. Or, they are the weird uncles and aunts at the holiday place settings. How many people are there at the holiday dinner table, anyway? Unknown billions? Let’s not get overwhelmed with numbers. I feel obligated to remember only a few hundred people. The entire scope of the human family encompasses just a few hundred lifetimes, not uncountable billions. From country to country there is a wide variety of human life expectancy. But it is not uncommon now to live to be a centenarian, a hundred years old, in any country. Certainly it does feel strange to think that I myself am older today than the average life expectancy of a Canadian just a century ago. Wow! Now get over it. There are people alive today who were alive when World War One ended. That means that the First World War is still only a single human lifetime ago. We can think of it as ancient history, as three or four generations ago if you calculate a “generation” as about thirty years, or we can easily think of it as not yet a single lifetime past. Imagine twenty centenarians sitting in front of you right now. That is the amount of human life that separates us from Spartacus, Jesus Christ and Caesar Augustus. Sixty centenarians in a room represent the entirety of human civilization. Six hundred represent almost the entire history of our species. It puts things in a different perspective. Am I over-simplifying things with these numbers? I am trying to.
Of course, we cannot talk about human “history” before the invention of writing. “History” means “story” which means a written record of the story to study - in stone, bone, clay, plaster, animal skin, plant fiber, silicon chip or electronic vapor - which means no history in an academic sense before about five thousand years ago. But I’m sure you get my meaning. To me, studying history is like reading the daily newspaper, and reading the daily newspaper is definitely witnessing history. Read the newspaper and your friends will think you’re a genius.