Another dream

Sunday morning I woke from a dream in which I was working in a library. Not that dreaming about library work surprises me—I work for a library now, and my very first job years ago was working for a library. The library in my dream was unlike any library where I have worked, but it was not an odd or peculiar library. What made less sense was the matter of what my job involved in working for the library.

I did not seem to have any set tasks or responsibilities, although at one time I was gathering information for a researcher to use. Much of the dream involved walking around the library, using back staircases and passing through administrative areas, overhearing the gossip of various departments, but not really accomplishing anything of note. At one point I crossed paths with a group of business leaders who were on a tour of the library, but I had no responsibility to guide their tour. Whatever my job might have been, it did not seem to require me to stay in one place or to perform any task to completion.

The best part of the dream, though, came at the end. I walked into an open-air meeting area with tables and chairs in place. Seated at one of the tables, with two or three other men, was Richard Nixon. I sat at the next table, hoping I would have a chance to speak with him. The other men got up and left, and Mr. Nixon greeted me. I moved to sit at the same table across from him. He first asked me if I had lost some weight. (For years, in real life, it has been common for people who know me and haven’t seen me for a while to remark that I seem to have lost weight. In fact, my weight has been surprisingly constant over a number of years. Evidently, people remember me as heavier than I really am. And those thoughts, true to the real world, went through my mind in the dream.) He asked how I was doing, and I asked him the same, and then he asked how my family was doing—all routine conversation, nothing that indicated that he had any interest in me or anything I might have to say.

But—and this is the most interesting aspect of this dream—without acknowledging to myself that I was dreaming, I was aware that this Richard Nixon was not simply Richard Nixon, but was Nixon from a particular time in his life. Before I could say much more to him, I needed to know where he was on his personal timeline. So I asked him about his family, trying to make it clear that I had a genuine interest, not mere courtesy. His first remark was to say that David had just turned twenty. In the dream, I knew instantly that he meant David Eisenhower, who would marry Julie Nixon. (David was not only the son-in-law of President Nixon but also the grandson of President Eisenhower.) If he had just turned twenty, I calculated, David had not yet married Julie, even though they must be engaged if Mr. Nixon was counting him as family. I gathered, therefore, that the Nixon I was addressing was Richard Nixon of the late 1960s, a Richard Nixon who had not yet been elected President.

I must have awoken at that point, because I don’t remember what I said to Richard Nixon once I knew the year he was experiencing. Later in the day, though, I did my research and learned that David Eisenhower was born March 31, 1948. If he had just turned twenty, then Mr. Nixon and I were in the spring of 1968. Nixon had announced that he was running for President and had won the Republican primary in New Hampshire, but he still faced serious rivals for the nomination: George Romney, Nelson Rockefeller, and Ronald Reagan. President Johnson had already announced that he was not seeking reelection, and the Democratic nomination was being sought by Senators Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy, by Vice President Hubert Humphrey, and others.

What might I have said to Richard Nixon that spring? I knew that he would receive the nomination and would win the election. I knew what challenges would face him as President. I could foretell his accomplishments and his disappointments. What would I have told him about the years to come? What promises might I have offered? What warnings might I have spoken? What things might have changed if Mr. Nixon and I could have spoken in the spring of 1968, given everything I know about his years in the White House?

I will never be able to answer those questions. More to the point, why would I dream about an opportunity to talk with Richard Nixon? Why would my dream mind have chosen that very time in his career for us to meet? Is part of my mind hoping that, like Nixon in 1968, I am about to enter the most important time in my life and career? If so, what doors might open for me in the coming months? How might I finally reach my potential and be of benefit to others? And what advice would President Nixon have to offer me this spring if we could meet and visit today? J.

More history

As people long ago settled into patterns of raising their own food—tending herds and flocks, and planting and harvesting crops—they looked for places with fertile soil, reliable sources of water, and safety from dangerous animals, including other people. Many of these ideal settlements were in the river valleys of Asia and north Africa. In China, India, Mesopotamia, and Egypt, settlements grew until they had become small kingdoms, societies knit together by their common needs and desires.

Plentiful food made specialization possible. Some people focused on the crops and others on the flocks and herds. Still others helped to build houses and enclosures for the animals. Some made tools. Others made clothing from plant fibers and animal skins or fur. Some specialized in the arts, including story-telling; they maintained the histories of their people and also their religious beliefs. Some specialized in leadership; beginning as heads of families and of clans, they became the ruling class of their small nations. Some specialized in hunting and in military protection of their settlements. Some became priests and spiritual leaders, keeping the people in tune with God as they understood God.

Eventually, all these river valley settlements developed written language. Sumer, in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) appears to be the earliest place where humans wrote, although the Harappan civilization in India may have begin writing around the same time. Although the earliest records were probably inventories of food and other items being preserved, soon the same symbols were adapted to record other information that people were determined to preserve. One of the oldest documents found in Sumer is a recipe for brewing beer.

Literacy did not remain an ability of the privileged elite. Egyptian Pharaohs erected public monuments in their cities and at the borders of their land, telling people what they had accomplished. Hammurabi, king of a Sumerian city called Babylon, had the laws of his government carved in stone and placed prominently in his city. These practices indicate that many people living in those places were able to read. Some ancient writings have been preserved, not because of planning, but by fortunate happenstance. Temporary records scratched into clay tablets in western Asia were cooked when the cities caught fire, being hardened for long-term preservation. During the Shang Dynasty in China, people with questions about the future wrote those questions on animal bones. Religious specialists then heated the bones in fire until they cracked; the cracks running through the questions provided answers by means of the specialists. Although we do not know how they determined their answers, we know what questions people were asking in ancient China, which is splendid information for historians.

Many records have been lost over time, because they were written on materials that disintegrated. Others cannot be read because no one today knows those ancient languages. Ancient Egyptian can be read only because of a stone found in Egypt that contains the same message in three languages, including Greek. The Harappan language of ancient India and some of the written languages of the western hemisphere remain mysteries because no similar key has been found to interpret them.

Other civilizations did not bother trying to preserve the written word. In many places, unfavorable climate guaranteed that no written materials would last for generations. Africa, the South Pacific, and parts of the western hemisphere relied largely on oral tradition rather than a written record. For a long time, historians were suspicious of oral tradition. They figured it changed from generation to generation, much as spoken messages are changed from person to person in contemporary cultures. People who never relied on writing improved their memory skills; story-tellers in those cultures were able to maintain reliable versions of ancient narratives because their communities expected that skill from them. Today, historians place far more trust on the oral traditions of such societies; they combine that information with archaeological discoveries and accounts written by visitors to those societies to develop a comprehensive historical record of those nations.

Record-keeping practices constantly change. Electronic storage of information is still new, but the switch from scrolls to codices (the modern form of the book, with a spine and a cover) happened roughly two thousand years ago without bringing history to an end. Record management specialists and archivists continue to refine their skills at preserving digital information. Much will still be lost, as many books and papers are lost, and many ancient documents have disappeared. What is most valuable, though, will be saved. Future generations will study us to learn about our successes, our failures, our hopes and dreams, our fears, and our perceptions of ourselves. We may seem as strange to them as the ancient Egyptians, Sumerians, Harappans, and Chinese seem to us today. In the most important ways, though, we will all be the same, because we all are human. J.

The ages of human history

As a custom, historians divide eras of people according to the material from which they made their tools. The earliest tools were made of stone, and so we have the Stone Age. Then follow the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. More recently, a finer alloy of iron allowed greater expansion of industry, so we can refer to a Steel Age. Then, around the middle of the twentieth century, we entered the Plastic Age.

Here is a trick question: when does one age end and another begin? The question cannot be answered until we specify the area in question and even which group within that area. The Bible describes a time, when Saul was king of Israel, that the Israelites were in the Bronze Age while the Philistines were in the Iron Age. This gave the Philistines advantages over the Israelites—military advantages and agricultural advantages—because the Philistines were using better tools.

Each of these ages is further divided into various segments, often very detailed in their descriptions. Pottery, basket weaving, and other early industries help to define these segments; they also indicate when two or more groups of people exchanged items they had made. The larger ages are sufficient for a general discussion of history, although the Stone Age is generally divided. When I was younger, we learned about the Paleolithic Age, or Old Stone Age; and the Mesolithic, or Middle Stone Age, and the Neolithic, or New Stone Age. I never learned all the distinctions among the three stone ages, aside from the fact that the Paleolithic came first and the Neolithic is most recent. Now books only separate the Paleolithic and Neolithic ages. The distinction is easy: Paleolithic people have no set home; they travel to hunt and harvest their food. Neolithic people have settlements; they raise flocks and herds of animals, and they plant seeds and tend the plants that grow and harvest the crops when they are ripe.

Extremely useful tools are made from stones. Flint and obsidian are especially helpful because sharp blades can be chipped from these stones. Sharp stones became knives that cut food, axes that cut wood, and weapons that helped when hunting animals or when battling other groups of people for resources. Many North Americans have gathered what are commonly called “arrowheads.” Most of these shaped stones are too large for arrows; they were used instead on short spears that were thrown at a target, such as deer or bison. Professional historians and archaeologists classify these tools as “projectile points.”

Back to the trick question: speaking on a world-wide basis, the Paleolithic Age has never ended. Some people today still choose to live in a Paleolithic pattern. Not only are their tools made of stone; they travel to hunt and to harvest their food. They have no permanent settlements. They are aware of newer possibilities in civilization—bronze and iron and steel and plastic. They choose to perpetuate the ways of their ancestors. Australia, Siberia, and many other parts of the world are home to Paleolithic groups that preserve their ancient customs and choose not to adapt to newer ways.

No written records describe the discovery of bronze. Bronze is an alloy, a mixture of copper and tin. (Some parts of the world had a Copper Age before they entered the Bronze Age.) Copper and tin ores exist naturally in some rocks; historians assume that people who gathered rocks to line their fire pits found a new substance in the morning when the fires had gone out. This new substance, bronze, could be shaped more easily than stone. Bronze blades on weapons and other tools lasted longer than stone blades. The advantage of bronze tools made them the choice of most civilized groups that encountered them, either by their own discovery or through trade with other groups.  

Iron is even more durable than bronze. Iron does not melt in a normal fire, which is why many campers use cast iron pots and skillets. Pure iron is a powder, but a mixture of iron and carbon produces an alloy which is extremely useful. Once people learned how to blow air into a fire to make it hotter, they were ready for the Iron Age. The earliest appearance of that industry seems to have occurred among the Hittites, living in what now is the country called Turkey. The technology spread to neighboring civilizations. It appears to have arisen spontaneously in China and in central Africa as well. Iron technology caused a great gap between “haves” and “have-nots” in the ancient world. Some civilizations, including the Philistines, attempted to preserve a monopoly on iron technology, but they were only able to hold that monopoly for a few years, never for long.

About a thousand years ago, chemists in China found a new way of combining iron and carbon which made a finer version of iron, which we call steel rather than cast iron. Once again, this new technology offered advantages over the older iron tools. Gradually, this chemical knowledge moved along the trade routes called the Silk Roads, until it reached the British Isles in western Europe. The British had advantages which had not existed in China or in other civilizations on the Silk Roads: they had iron deposits, coal deposits, and running water for generating power all located near one another. Chinese inventors made the first water wheels—wheels turned by a flowing stream of water, generating power to operate machinery such as grain mills. Europeans improved this Chinese invention by positioning the water wheels vertically instead of horizontally in the streams of water. This allowed gravity to add to the energy of the moving water, generating even more power. The Industrial Revolution began in Great Britain a few centuries ago because of the use of these Chinese discoveries—the recipe for finer steel, and the power that comes from a wheel turned by water.

Now most of the tools we use are made, at least in part, from plastic. Plastic is made from petroleum, so people will need to continue mining and refining petroleum even if it ceases to be a source of energy to operate vehicles and to generate electricity. Plastic is extremely useful for tools, but plastic can cause more damage to the environment than stones or metal, since it does not exist as such in nature. People have shown in the past that we can be inventive, finding new materials to improve older technologies. Perhaps even now researchers in a laboratory somewhere are experimenting with a new substance that will replace plastic and move humanity into yet another age. J.

History and prehistory

The textbook assigned for my history classes occasionally made references to groups of people who had lived in various places for many thousands of years or of people who arrived in certain places many thousands of years ago. I promised my students that they would not be required to learn those time spans, and I assured them they would not be tested on those numbers.

Right after explaining to the class what the textbook means by “BCE and “CE,” I gave them that assurance. “This class is a class about history,” I told them. Those few sentences in the book are about prehistory. We are not studying prehistory in this class; if it comes up in other classes, you can learn about it there. I used the opportunity to teach the students that, when it comes to prehistory, more than two theories are available. The reduction of debates and disagreements to two choices can be a problem in many areas—particularly in the study of history. I reminded the students that often prehistory is approached as if there are only two positions: Evolution, in which the world has changed and developed over millions of years, and Creation, in which the world was made by an Almighty God less than ten thousand years ago. I pointed out that there are other theories. Some people believe that an Almighty God created over millions of years, gradually shaping the world and life in it into what we know today. Others see God as a Spirit of the Universe, evolving with the worlds and with the life living on those worlds. Still others view the universe as passing through stages, gradually building to a high point, then crashing into destruction and beginning again the process of building. Some versions of Hinduism regard the physical world as a place in which building and destruction and rebuilding has been the pattern, repeated many times through the long course of history.

Evolution did not begin with Charles Darwin. When we reach the nineteenth century and talk about Darwin, I point out that his writings were heavily footnoted. None of his ideas were new; he was merely a successful writer who brought those ideas together and expressed them in a popular fashion. One might say that Darwin had a better press agent than other scientists of his generation—just as one might say that Guttenberg had a better press agent than other inventers of his time. Guttenberg was selected as the most influential man of the millennium (1000-2000) because of his printing invention; but printing was invented in China centuries before Guttenberg was born. Even movable type had been devised before Guttenberg came along. His printing business was more successful than those of his competitors, and he ended up taking credit for the new technology, but he scarcely deserves credit for changing the world by inventing printing or any facet of printing technology.

And don’t let me even start talking about Thomas Edison….

But I digress. I also tell my students that if Charles Darwin were transported into a biology class taking place in our time and were given an examination on evolution, Darwin would fail the test. The theory of evolution has changed (some would say it has evolved) since Darwin wrote his famous books. Darwin believed in slow, gradual change continually occurring in nature. Scientists today teach about long periods of stability and sudden changes—often climate change brought about by meteorite strikes or other cataclysmic events. Darwin believed that all surviving adaptations were improvements—“survival of the fittest”—but scientists today insist that many surviving adaptations are not the best possible results of change—“survival of the survivors.”

In any case, human beings at the beginning of recorded history were essentially like human beings today. They had the same intellectual capability, the same ability to learn, and the same ability to remember that people have today. They had less to learn and less to remember—not only history, but science and literature and other classes would also have been greatly abbreviated from what students learn today. Their bodies were smaller, on the average, and their lives were shorter, but that was due more to nutrition and other health-related issues than to any evolutionary change over the past few thousand years. No, when we think of the earliest people who lived at the beginning of history, those people were very much like ourselves.

Poor people. J.

The history of history

History changes. One might think that the only updates history books require is an additional chapter every few years to cover the last events. If one thought that, one would be wrong. We continue to learn more about our past, requiring revisions of our earlier writings about history. Consider the following examples:

  • In 2012, a construction project in England unearthed a skeleton that archaeologists and historians hoped might belong to King Richard III. The condition of the skeleton was compared to details known about the king, and careful study of the chemical composition of the bones was conducted; both kinds of tests demonstrated a convincing case that the remains were indeed those of Richard. Further chemical examination of the skeleton and studies of its form provided additional information about King Richard, including information about his diseases, his diet, and the injuries he sustained in his last battle. All this data helped to add details to our understanding of Richard III, of his life and death, and of conditions in England when he was alive.
  • Until recently, history textbooks reported that we can only guess at the number of slaves imported from Africa into the western hemisphere between 1500 and 1800. A team of young historians, aware that the slave trade was a business, went searching for business records. They found them. Historians now can say with confidence that twelve million slaves were sold and purchased from the African coast during those three hundred years—most of them sold by African tribes to European traders—and that nine million slaves were sold in the western hemisphere as part of the same trade. These numbers demonstrate that three million Africans died while being transported across the Atlantic Ocean in those three centuries—and their death was largely dismissed as part of the cost of doing business.
  • During the Roman Empire, a man named Ptolemy created a map and geography textbook of the inhabited world, to the best of educated knowledge at that time. Ptolemy included cities of Germanic groups in northern Europe on his map. For centuries, historians scoffed at Ptolemy’s invention of European cities, since historians knew he never visited that part of the world, and since other Roman soldiers described the German tribes as wanderers with no fixed abode. But when researchers decided to test Ptolemy’s claims, they found that the cities he located on his map were in the same location as some contemporary German cities. They then learned that ancient artifacts had been found in most of those cities. No one had ever considered the possibility that those were ancient German cities, since “everyone knew” that the Germans didn’t live in cities before crossing into the Roman Empire. Now the German heritage, and the early history of those cities, is better understood.

Earlier historians debated among themselves whether great people create history or history creates great people. Would the Christian Church have experienced a Reformation without Martin Luther? Would the American colonies have revolted against the British and later created a Presidency without George Washington? For some historians, history was essentially biography. For others, biographies distracted students from real history. Tolstoy in his novel War and Peace insisted that Napoleon was not a great man, that he was moved by historic forces he did not understand, and that his rise and fall would have happened to anyone who happened to become the leader of France at that particular time.

Current historians favor the latter approach. Recognizing the cliché that “the winners write the histories,” many historians work hard to learn about the losers and about those who were living ordinary lives at the time of great events. More than ever before, history focuses on the lives and conditions of people who never wrote a book, painted a masterpiece, led an army or a government, or sparked a new religion or philosophy. Modern science helps through its study of trace chemicals and of details such as pollen collected from various archaeological sites. Climate change can be traced in its warmer and cooler patterns by observing available crops in different areas, migration of people and of animals, and even studying tree rings. Global warming one thousand years ago made Viking settlements possible in Iceland, Greenland, and North America. When the planet cooled, those settlements were abandoned.

Karl Marx studied history as a battle between economic forces. Many historians today follow Marxist patterns by observing the contrasting economic situations of successful and unsuccessful civilized groups. Many historians focus on groups that were considered unsuccessful at the time. Today there are feminist histories, black histories, Native American histories, and many other efforts to document people who were marginalized in their own lifetimes and were incapable of writing and publishing their own histories, their own experiences, and their own perceptions.

Targeted studies of such groups have great value. At the same time, awareness of minority groups or oppressed peoples cannot fully replace the larger framework of history that has been built over the centuries. In earlier years, and in survey courses, students need to learn about the broad picture of human history. Given that broad picture, they develop an ability to evaluate and interpret the experiences of marginalized groups. Efforts to include these accounts within the basic and elementary presentations of history defeat the purpose of an educated society. Instead of creating a fuller and more accurate picture, these histories of oppression confuse students, distort their understanding of history, and crush their interest in learning more about themselves and their origins.

History of the marginalized and oppressed must continue to be studied and taught, but it must always be placed within the context of fuller history. It cannot be used as a substitute for traditional history lessons. The traditional history, even with its simplifications and other flaws, unites society and gives people a common ground, a place from which they can discuss the detailed nuances of history. Sacrificing traditional history to honor those who struggled and suffered, in the end, serves no good or worthy purpose. J.

History and sources

As a history instructor, naturally I explained to my students the meaning and significance of primary, secondary, and tertiary sources.

Primary sources come from people who were there, those who took part in the event or who were witnesses of the event. Memoirs and autobiographies are, of course, primary sources. So are diaries, letters, oral histories, photographs, recordings, and receipts. Primary sources do not have to contain words: artwork and architecture can be primary sources, as well as tools, weapons, clothing, and other artifacts. Garbage is a great source of primary sources. (Imagine how much an investigator could learn about your family by examining your garbage from the last month!) Dead bodies and the artifacts buried with them are also great primary sources, although contemporary historians and archaeologists are showing greater respect for burials than was the case in previous centuries.

Secondary sources collect data from the primary sources, examine them, and draw conclusions from them. A soldier writes about sights and sounds on the battlefield, while a politician writes about decisions made in the halls of government; the author of a secondary source combines those perceptions to produce a fuller account of the war than either primary source could create. Secondary sources should contain notes and bibliographies listing those primary sources they used to form their interpretations, as well as which secondary sources were consulted to help the writers interpret those primary sources.

Newspapers, magazines, and web sites can be a mixture of primary and secondary source material. When a reporter quotes a participant or witness, that quote is a primary source; the rest of the article which describes and explains the event is a secondary source. Even those secondary sources become primary sources for the historian who wants to know how events were understood at the time, before historians began writing about an event and trying to understand and explain what happened, why it happened, and what it means for people today.

Tertiary sources summarize what the secondary sources say. Encyclopedia articles (whether in print or online) are tertiary sources; so are textbooks. Student papers are tertiary sources. If a student only looked at the textbook and an encyclopedia or two and then wrote a paper, that paper would be a quaternary source, which is effectively useless. Junior high and early high school students might get away with that approach, but by college a writer should know how to read, evaluate, and summarize information from primary and secondary sources. The best uses of a tertiary source at that level of education are to get a general idea of what people are saying about the event and to consult the bibliography to find good secondary sources for research.

At this point, I ask the students if they agree with the statement that, “the more sources you have, the more likely you are to reach a firm conclusion about the event.” At first that proposition sounds reasonable, but too much information can be worse than not enough. Think of the assassination of President Kennedy. We have many primary sources—hundreds of witnesses who saw and heard the shooting, the doctors in Dallas who treated the President and declared him dead, the doctors in Washington who performed the autopsy, photographs, moving pictures, a bullet, bullet fragments, the President’s clothing, the car, and much much more. So many secondary sources have assembled interpretations of the event that probably no person can read and watch them all. Yet massive disagreement persists about what happened in Dallas that day. With so much information, researchers can choose those items and reports that match their theories while disregarding or dismissing contrary items and reports.

(Actually, good research affirms that the President was shot from behind. Analysis of the shirt and tie he was wearing confirm that the neck wound was an exit wound, not an entrance wound—as the Dallas doctors first thought and said. Still pictures taken from the Zapruder film clearly show the aftermath of the fatal head would exiting toward the front, indicating that the bullet struck him from the rear. Researchers who insist that other evidence indicates that shots were fired at the President from in front of the car must then explain how it was that those shooters missed their target—something I have not seen addressed in secondary sources.)

I have seen many sloppy works written by authors who deliberately skipped sources that did not agree with their preestablished conclusions, authors who misquoted and distorted their sources, and authors who relied on emotional persuasion rather than solid academic research to state their cases. These sloppy works are not limited to college students; they include professional historians, even some respected academic writers, who were more interested in publishing the conclusions they wanted to share than in being persuaded by the evidence of the sources that they were wrong. As I said before, historians have an obligation to be honest and fair with their information. The reputations of people from the past and the effective thinking of people in the future is in the hands of today’s historians. For this reason, I am very concerned about the way history is being taught in many classrooms today, and I am sorry that my voice is no longer among those being heard in those classrooms. J.

Teaching history

I miss being in the classroom. The COVID crisis helped the school for which I taught hasten its transfer from classroom teaching to online teaching. They had already been pushing that direction for some time. I took the training sessions but did not offer to teach online. The students who enrolled in my classes preferred to learn in the classroom. But when the campus was closed, the conversion to online teaching forced me to take a break in my college career. Now, I suspect, the break has become a permanent retirement.

My classroom was on a military base, although the school responsible for the classes is a state institution. Many of my students were active military personnel; others were family of active personnel, retired military personnel, and people from the community who enrolled through the state school. I had a few students older than me, while I also had students still in high school earning their first college credits.

I taught history. Occasionally I taught a class in world religions or in introduction to philosophy, but mostly I taught the survey history classes: World History to 1650 and World History since 1650. The year 1650 was arbitrarily chosen; it was the middle of the textbook. Even when the school faculty changed textbooks and the new textbook split around 1500, they didn’t bother to change the name of the classes. Sometimes I would challenge students to guess why the class either began or ended with 1650. I heard some good suggestions about the Industrial Revolution, the Age of European Exploration and Colonization, and other landmarks that might have happened around 1650; students groaned when I told them that the only reason the year was chosen was that it was the middle of the book. But I then made the point that we have as much information to study and learn about the past 370 years as we have for the thousands of years that preceded 1650.

Some of my student signed up for the class because they love history. Others took it only because they were required to have one class in history. I managed to benefit the entire range of students. People who think they hate history, more often than not, had history ruined for them by a bad teacher, one who forced them to memorize names and places and dates, to focus on trivia that is easily found online. I focused on teaching the bigger themes of history, giving students a reason to seek the details online. A survey class cannot spend time on details. Taking a survey class in history is like running through a buffet restaurant—one sees and smells some of the food available, and one can return later to sample the dishes that seemed most appealing. I had the students write some “compare and contrast” essays to force them into a bit of focused research: What similarities and differences can one find studying Napoleon and Hitler? What similarities and differences can one find studying Socrates and Confucius? I gave them choices so they could focus on topics most interesting to them (and so I wouldn’t have to read a dozen versions of the same essay). But mostly I invited them to see the vast themes of human history on this planet. We discussed migrations, wars, economic trade, and the spread of ideas. We talked about significant developments in technology, artistic expression, and philosophy. We analyzed the significance of geographic features, climate change at various times in history, foods, and diseases. At times we debated similarities and connections between past happenings and current events.

The first night we met was always exciting, and also a bit stressful, even anxiety-inducing. They would find out what kind of instructor I aimed to be and how their work as students would be evaluated; I measured how willing they would be to discuss ideas in the classroom and to share experiences that related to our lessons. For example, when we talked about the beliefs and practices of Muslims, some of my students were able to describe things they had seen in Muslim countries. One of the joys of teaching college is the presence of students who have learned things I haven’t learned or who have had experiences I haven’t had. I always invited them to share what they knew with the rest of us.

I also invited them to challenge interpretations of history, even those that were presented on the quizzes. I wanted them to see that history is more that memorizing a list of data; history is sorting the data, connecting the data, and interpreting the data. Historians sort through information, seeking understandings of what happened, why it happened, and what it caused to happen. Historians are allowed to disagree with one another. Sometimes I disagreed with the textbook. Students were allowed and invited to disagree with me—not to earn an extra point on a quiz, but to help all of us learn more about history. If they stated their case well, using valid information from the textbook or other sources, I gave them the point. If they were merely quibbling, I held to the point, defending it and showing how historians work to gather and share their understanding of history.

Near the end of the first night’s discussion, I told the class about President Nixon. In August 1974, Nixon resigned from the office of President—he is the only U.S. President to resign. The Watergate scandal that produced that resignation is complicated, and I did not describe it that first night. But I explained how distraught, discouraged, and depressed he was having to leave that important job that he had fought so much to gain and to hold. I then told the students how Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had tried to comfort the President by saying that history would remember him more kindly than his contemporaries. I also quoted Nixon’s response to those words, as he said, “That depends upon who writes the histories.”

I pointed out to the students that, by enrolling in that class, they had become historians. They were taking on responsibility—they would help to write the histories. They owed it to their subjects, and to those who would read their work, to be accurate and fair. They would need to do thorough research, to think clearly and deeply about the information they had studied, and to communicate their conclusions effectively, convincingly, and honestly.

I would like to believe that, over the years, I have helped to shape a few good historians. I miss being in the classroom. J.

I dreamed a dream

I have vivid and memorable dreams, this year more than ever before. I have dreamt about family members, both living and dead. I have dreamt about friends and co-workers, both present and from the past. I have invented people, such as Lori the cheerleader. But last night’s dream was one to remember, as I got to hang out with the Beatles, as they were in 1964.

I met the four of them in the audience section of an otherwise empty theater, but then I took them home for lunch. The home I took them to was the house in which I grew up. We ate in the living room (which is odd, upon reflection; my family always ate at the dining room table), and I gave them direction to the bathroom at the end of the hall. We ate lightly—deli meat on white bread, with lettuce and tomato on the side. But then the dream shifted, as dreams often do, and we were seated in a restaurant. I remember that we were served an appetizer of fried onions covered with mushrooms and gravy. But I was with the Beatles—John, Paul, George, and Ringo, just as we know them from A Hard Days Night and other film footage from that year.

In my dreams, I have sat and talked with Presidents—not yet with President Biden, but with most of the other Presidents in my lifetime. I have played basketball with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen and the rest of the 1990s Chicago Bulls. (That dream was in the 90s; after I awoke, I concluded that I had taken the place of Judd Buechler on the team.) I have watched tornadoes, and I have fled from sinister forces that were chasing me for no good purpose. I have discovered rooms and entire levels of houses in which I lived, fully furnished and free of dust even though they had been forgotten for years. I have traveled roads that began with me behind the wheel of a car but ended with me following narrow trails on foot. I have climbed mountains and forded streams, although I do not recall ever following a rainbow. I have had cats and dogs speak to me.

But having lunch with the Beatles is an experience I will not quickly forget. J.

Remembrance of opportunities lost

We all carry regrets from the past. What we cannot fix, we try to forget. Sometimes, though, the memories linger for a while; they refuse to be lost in the mists of time now expired.

I remember a college cheerleader—I’ll call her Lori. One summer she and I were among the first students to return to campus for the new school year. We first crossed paths at an all-campus party for returning students. I happened across this party by accident and remained at the edge, not wanting to be surrounded by the crowd. Somehow, Lori and I noticed each other and began a conversation. The conversation continued back at my dorm room. (Nothing else happened; we merely talked.) She encouraged me to attend a scrimmage the school’s football team was holding the next day. Because of her invitation, I went to the scrimmage. It seemed odd to me—the team was recreating the closing minutes of the game they had lost to our biggest rival at the end of last season. They were experimenting to see what might have happened with our new quarterback in charge of the offense’s final drive in the place of last year’s quarterback. The scrimmage was designed to turn into a pep rally (celebrating the win that might have happened but didn’t); the pep rally included a meal, and Lori asked me to attend, but I declined. I wanted to get back to my room and finish unpacking, and I wanted to see if my roommate and other friends had arrived. Although some of my roommate’s possessions were in the room, he was not around when I returned, but a couple of other friends were there. While we visited, Lori dropped in again. I meant to introduce her to my friends, but somehow—in the confusion of the moment—introductions were not made. Instead, I pulled out a wooden box I had made that summer. Picturing it in my hands today, it would have made a nice cage for a cricket or other large insect. One of my friends asked if it was made from toothpicks, and I answered no, that it was made from splinters pulled off an old railroad tie. I did not say this, but I was thinking that no cheerleaders had been around to encourage my work on this piece of art. It seems that somehow Lori read my mind, because she suddenly ran out of the room, sobbing. At that instant, I was torn—I wanted to go to her, to comfort her, to have her come back so I could introduce her to my friends and make her part of the group. At the same time, I was reluctant to leave my friends for her, and I wasn’t sure what I was going to say to her. Before I could resolve the dilemma, I awoke.

Yes, this was all a dream and Lori, like the wooden art project, was only a creation of my dream mind. She didn’t even have a name in the dream; she was only “the cheerleader.” But the regret I felt was real. I appreciated our brief friendship, I wanted that friendship to continue to grow, and I hated the knowledge that I had hurt her feelings, even if it was only in my thoughts and in my dream.

I didn’t mention the earlier parts of the dream in which I visited a classroom where I had earlier taught a class, spoke with some of the students in that classroom, watched the new professor hand out candy and pizza to the students, then left and tried (but failed) to find my car in the parking lot, all of which led to the party where I met the cheerleader. I’ve been having (and remembering) a lot of dreams this year that are like this dream—vivid, filled with related happenings as well as people and places, and often shaping my feelings for the entire day following the dream. These dreams may be due, at least partly, to medications I am taking, but they obviously come from my own mind. I dream about people I remember—family and friends and coworkers, including some who have died, others who I haven’t seem for years, and some I still see nearly every day. At times the dreams are so vivid and realistic that I confuse them for memories of actual events or scenes from movies I’ve recently watched. (Did I recently see a deer, dream about a deer, or watch a movie that included a deer. That’s right—the deer was in last night’s movie.) In no way do I consider my dreams to be messages from God or predictions of the future. Dreams are mental problem-solving devices, managing hopes and fears, often in symbolic ways. But I still feel bad about upsetting Lori. If I could, I would let her know that I am sorry and that I still want us to be friends. J.

Foreign policy today

I have never agreed with any United States President one hundred percent of the time, and I have never disagreed with any United States President one hundred percent of the time. Although President Biden represents some ideas and policies with which I strongly disagree, I also believe that responsible citizenship includes support in the areas where President Biden is doing the right thing.

I am glad that the Biden administration is taking a firm position regarding Russia and China. Those two nations and the United States are the three most powerful countries in the world. A balance of power based on mutual respect is needed among these countries. Russia and China are both essentially dictatorships; neither has the checks and balances of a true democracy. Moreover, both countries are historically led by small centers of power. Neither has a history of government that is of the people, for the people, and by the people. As a result, their foreign policies must be shaped by pressure from outside their borders. The United States must be ready to protect and defend its friends. Our government must work with friendly governments in other parts of the world, showing a united front against Russian and Chinese aggression. At the same time, the United States and its friends must continue to speak openly about human rights around the world, including human rights in Russia and in China. We cannot meddle directly in the internal affairs of either country. We can, however, remind those governments and the rest of the world that human rights are important. We can also use economic agreements and negotiations to support policies in Russia and in China that recognize human rights and to punish actions that work against human rights in those places. President Biden and his administration have made commendable first steps in these areas, and we can hope that the course continues to be followed.

Working with people of west Asia and north Africa, the United States must continue to oppose terrorist organizations and rogue governments that threaten peace and security and that would deny human rights wherever they seize power. President Biden passed an early test of his determination to stand by American principles last month when he ordered air strikes against militias in Syria that receive support from Iran. President Obama was unable to end American military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq, and President Biden should not make the mistake of promising to withdraw all American troops from those countries. (After all, the United States still has military bases in Germany and Japan.) A reduced American presence in those places is not necessarily a problem. But we do not want to appear to be abandoning our friends or to be leaving that part of the world in the hands of determined enemies to our core values of democracy, freedom, and human rights. These values are not opposed to Islam; we should never be seen as fighting against an entire religion, but we should also not surrender the battlefield to religious extremists who seek power and control at the expense of freedom and human rights.

The Biden administration has already learned that it cannot hold to the illusion of an open border with Mexico. We need (as we have always needed) control over immigration to embrace incoming people who agree with American values and will support and benefit our country while barring the entrance of criminals and others who would undermine the American way of life. Efforts to elicit the cooperation of the governments of Mexico and of Central American countries to control migration into the United States are a good step and should continue to be pursued. At the same time, the United States must continue to have border security while dealing with would-be immigrants in a way that is both just and compassionate.

A joke during the eight years that President Obama was in the White House claimed that Obama’s solution to the immigration crisis was to change the United States so it became a less desirable place to live. Some of President Biden’s policies threaten to follow the same path. As he said during the campaign last year, though, Biden’s policies are not as extreme as many of those suggested by his opponents for the Democratic nomination in 2020. Evidence shows that President Biden will have to negotiate with Republicans in Congress to achieve any of his goals. The American system of checks and balances is working and will continue to work. We should continue to pray for all our elected leaders, and we should be prepared to support the best candidates for Congress in 2022. Meanwhile, the presidency of President Biden is not, thus far, the unmitigated disaster that some Trump supporters predicted. J.