The Importance of History

“Not to know what took place before you were born, is to forever remain a child.”

                                    – Cicero

I have always enjoyed history. I have often wondered why history is not a very popular subject among most people today.  I think it has a great deal to do with the way people view history.  History is generally deemed as irrelevant and not meaningful for today.  Henry Ford reportedly said, “History is bunk.” and when asked to define history Ambrose Bierce said, “An account, mostly false, of events, mostly unimportant, most of which are brought about by rulers, mostly knaves, and soldiers, mostly fools.”  I am afraid this is probably the kind of definition that most people would come up with if they sat down and thought about how to represent their thought on the topic.  And though I am somewhat abashed to admit it, there is a lot of truth to what is being said.  However there is also a lot being left out.

So why do I think history is so important?  I feel that I must clarify before continuing.  Just in case you hadn’t thought about it, it is always helpful to realize that history does not end an a rolling time frame 100 years before the current year.  It does not even end the moment you were born.  What you just read is now history. (And so is that)       So, once again, why is history so important?  It gives people identity.  Try to describe why you are who you are today without history.  If you find that you can do it, please let me know.  Post a comment or something because I have yet to think of a way in which to describe why I am the way I am without going back in history.  You are not just who you are.  You are the product of a very specific sequence of events.  Why are you one nationality and not another?  Why do you speak the language you do and not another?  Why do you live where you live?  Why is your hair brown?  (Or blond or black or rainbow for that matter.)  Is it not because of what happened in the past?  Without history we would not know who we are, or why we are the way we are.

At this point many of you are probably thinking, “Wait a minute.  Nobody believes that their own past isn’t important to them.  What we don’t see as relevant is the really old stuff.  I mean how could feudalism in the middle ages possibly affect my life today?”  (Just an example)  It is a fair question.  I still think however that the principle I have already propounded holds true.  In fact I find it even more interesting.  Now it is a puzzle.  How did feudalism affect who we are today?  I believe that if we look hard enough at most things we can find the deep ramifications of what happens in history and how it has brought us to where we are today.

Another reason why history is so important is that it affects the future.  Obviously, if something happened in the past than the future would be different than if that had not happened.  If I had not started a blog in the past than I would not be typing this right now.  Consequently, if we do not understand the past we will have a harder time understanding what is going on.  For example, if we did not know that a health care reform bill was passed in he United States than we would not understand why there are Supreme Court hearings going on right now about the constitutionality of such a piece of legislation.  Or better yet, if we didn’t know that in 1787 the United States Constitution was ratified, we would not understand what the people are talking about when they say they are suing the government for passing a law that is unconstitutional. (Or that they argue is such.)  The past is not only the key to understanding the present, but it is also the key to the future.  Rupert Brooke said, “History repeats itself, historians repeat each other.”  If we know what has happened in the past than we can see where certain actions often lead to, both good and bad.  With a proper understanding of the past we can change the future, or predict the future and prepare for it.

Finally, and most importantly history affects the way we view the world.  Why do you understand what you are reading right now?  Or more specifically, why is the letter “A” the letter “A” and not  “Q”?  When it comes down to it, “A” is “A” because in history someone decided that the symbol “A” was “A” and not “Q”.  You understand what you are reading because when you were a small child, you were taught that “A” was “A”.  Now, draw that principal out.  What if, when you were small, you and all the other children in school were taught that the earth was flat.  Would you not believe the earth was flat?  It is hard to think in that way because we know the earth is not flat, but consider the implications.  If no one you knew believed the earth was round, and you had no way of finding out the earth was in fact round, and you had been told since you were very small that the earth was flat, you would respond to the earth as if it were flat.  But we have in the past had people who have discovered and proved that the earth is round and so now we respond to the earth as it is; round.  What I am trying to say is, the way we understand the past affects the way we live.  If you do not have a correct understanding of the past you will have an incorrect view of the world in the present.

In conclusion, I am not trying to say that everyone should just love studying history.  I am merely trying to point out that history is much more important than our culture has taught us to believe it is.  So now that this post is history for you all, you get to decide how this history will affect your future view of the past.

Wyatt Fairlead

The Art of Scrimshaw

This may be a prime example of my artistic temperament and the apparent paradox of my dislike for detail oriented work, but being able to scratch away at bone for hours.  All that to say, I like to scrimshaw.  For those of you who are not aware, scrimshaw is a design or picture scratched into any surface (most commonly bone or ivory of some kind), and then inked so that the design will stand out against the material.

While sailors are not usually the type of people you think of when speaking of artisans, many a work of art was created during the “dog watches” by a crafty mariner.  Many sailors kept the practice of carving models of the ships on which they sailed, and other similar pursuits.  I don’t know when scrimshaw officially started, but it became common among whalers during the late 1700’s and early 1800’s.  Among the most common themes of scrimshaw are ships and whales but others are found as well.

I’m not exactly sure why I decided that I wanted to learn how to scrimshaw, but I think it had a great deal to do with my Grandpa Dave and my previous interest in ships.  Two years ago, I mentioned to Dad that it would be interesting to learn how to scrimshaw.  I had read about it in a magazine, and my interest was piqued.  So, several months later, Christmas rolled around and what do I find in my stocking but tools for scrimshawing.  My grandmother has a very reliable spy in my Dad. (Although the honest truth is I was taken completely by surprise and was not expecting it at all.)  Here are a few examples of scrimshaw,

This is some classic scrimshaw on a sperm whale tooth.

This is what  a profesional scrimshander can do.

And here are some of my unfortunate attempts.  But I have great fun and always enjoy thinking about the old sailors as they would sit by a lantern in the foc’sle and carve away with their jackknives.

Wyatt Fairlead

The Importance of Definitions

How often do you have miscommunications with people?  If you are anything like me, you have them on a somewhat regular basis.  I’m not talking about fights or altercations.  I’m referring to simply thinking someone meant something, which they didn’t actually mean.  I am convinced that 90% of these things come about because there are two definitions being used for the same term.

People often use the phrase “on the same page”, meaning, we are talking about the same thing, or we are thinking alike.  But what does it mean in essence to, “mean the same thing “.  It is simply the fact that you are using the same definitions for the same terms.  What is the definition of definition?

Definition: An act of determining.  A statement of the meaning of a word or word group or a sign or symbol.  The action or power of describing, explaining, or making definite and clear.

            I am notorious for saying two things.  The most common is my response to comments I hear people make.  Being the slightly nitpicking person that I am, if a comment is made that I don’t entirely agree with, I take it upon myself to explain to the person, “Depending on how you define…(such and such), that isn’t necessarily true.”  (A word of recommendation.  Don’t try this.  It is a habit I am trying to break.)   The other thing I am known for doing is asking people what they mean by a certain word they use.  (Not as irritating if done in moderation.)  The main causes for these foibles of mine are participating in several debate classes and an irrepressible tendency to notice things that can be twisted slightly; but more seriously growing up with a mother who treasures precise, straightforward communication, and taught me by example to think critically about what I hear.

I believe that I have always been interested in the meaning of words and their proper usage.  It has continually struck me as odd that many people are not as interested in words as I am, but I would say that that is probably the case for most people.  Never the less, it is my endeavor to explain to you why I see the meaning of words as so important for us today.

We have at our disposal more information than at any other time in history.  It is also interesting that we also have a societal trend for a lack of meaning in life.  Today’s university students are thoroughly trained that this world has no real meaning.  The popular view of today is that the world is a product of natural processes and that everything is up for the interpretation of the viewer.  This philosophical worldview is called post-modernism, and is essentially the rejection of all overarching truth claims.  If it is said to be true for all times and peoples, than it is something that a post-modernist would say is the opposite.  It would only be true for the individual and only means a certain thing to the person that is viewing it.

With that as context, I ask again.  What is a definition?  Is it not a statement of truth?  Does it not restrict interpretation to a few very limited meanings?  The meaning of words are indispensable to human relations, and there is now the opportunity to play havoc.  Granted most people don’t believe in the practical sense that words have no meaning…yet.  I am just noticing that the lid is off “Pandora’s Box” so to speak.

In conclusion, I would simply say that the point I want you to remember from all this is that what you understood me to be saying is what I meant; and not that German Shepherds are the best dogs because the lawn needs to be mowed.

By Wyatt Fairlead.