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.

Like newborn infants

The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a novel by Victor Hugo, tells the story of a baby who was left on the steps of the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris the Second Sunday of Easter. The baby was found and adopted by a priest, who gave the baby a name derived from the Latin name for that day. The story of Quasimodo is not much of an Easter story. It has more sorrow than joy, more tragedy than triumph. Yet its origins link the novel to the life of the Church, and as such the story can be used to illustrate and celebrate the Christian season of Easter.

But a few things must be explained. When I was a boy and heard that the story of “the Hunchback of Notre Dame” would be shown on television, I assumed that the movie would be about football. I knew that Notre Dame had a football team (confusing the university in Indiana, USA, with the cathedral in Paris, France). I guessed that hunchback was a football position, something like quarterback and halfback and fullback. I did not expect priests and gypsies to be part of the story. But I saw the movie; I have read the book several times since then. Quasimodo and Esmeralda are as meaningful to me as the three musketeers or Christine Daae. Classic French literature is a joy, even if its sentences and paragraphs require more effort to consume than our post-Hemingway American novels and stories.

Other people might question what is meant by “the Second Sunday of Easter.” The traditional Christian calendar assigns more than a day to Easter—the Easter season is a week of weeks, forty-nine days, ending on the fiftieth day which is the festival of Pentecost, celebrating the work of the Holy Spirit. During those seven weeks, especially on the seven Sundays, the resurrection continues to be celebrated—not with colored eggs and candy, but with Bible readings and hymns and sermons and prayers that remember the resurrection of Jesus Christ and apply his victory to our lives today.

Like all the Sundays and holidays on the Christian calendar, the Sundays of Easter each have a special “praise song” called an Introit. The words of the Introit are taken from the Bible, mostly from the book of Psalms, although other verses of praise are also used. The Introit for the Second Sunday of Easter begins with a quote from I Peter 2:2-3: “Like new-born infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up to salvation, if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.” The Latin words for “like new-born infants” are “Quasi Modo Geniti”—hence the name given to the baby hunchback, Quasimodo.

The Quasimodo theme, though, is not about human deformities or about dancing gypsies. Quasi Modo Geniti speaks of new life—the new life Christians receive through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In his work, Christians are born again. Our old sinful selves are killed and buried with Christ; our new selves are raised with Christ and live with Christ forever. In his letter to the Romans, chapter six, the apostle Paul links this death and burial and resurrection to Baptism. Therefore, traditional Christians claim to be “born again,” not because of any prayer they prayed or invitation they gave to Jesus, but because of his death and burial and resurrection, because of baptism, and because of the ongoing work of God the Holy Spirit in their lives.

Because God is outside of time and unlimited by time, his people can be new every day. Every day we can be born again; every day we can be “like new-born infants.” Every song of praise is a new song sung to the Lord, even if we sang it before, even if Christians have been singing it for centuries. The commandment to love one another is a new commandment every day. Christ spoke it as a new commandment the night he was betrayed, but it had already been spoken in the past by Moses and the prophets. It is new because Christians are new—new-born infants, born every day through the resurrection of Christ and through his forgiveness, his restoration, and his transforming power.

Two years ago, the cathedral of Notre Dame was damaged by fire. Today it is being rebuilt. That holy place, dedicated to God, is both old and new, transformed even as each Christian is transformed through the work of Jesus. The fire of God’s judgment is quenched by the water of his Sacrament, washing away our sins and adopting us into God’s family. Jesus endured that fire for us on the cross. Jesus provided us with victory. Jesus makes us new every day—born again by his grace as children of the heavenly Father and heirs of the kingdom of heaven. We have tasted that the Lord is good. We rejoice in his goodness forever. J.

SCIENCE AND LIFE

The good thing about science is that it is always changing. The more experts observe the world around us and try to understand it, the more they discover and share with the rest of us. From the tiniest elements of creation—the particles from which atoms are made—to the vastness that contains galaxies beyond number, the universe is filled with marvels. New living beings are frequently found in the depths of the oceans, the hearts of the rain forests, and even in our own backyards. Health and disease, gladness and depression, the quality of our environment—they all matter to us, and they all are subject to study, observation, experiment, and the other tools of science. These tools help improve our lives and our care of the world around us.

The bad thing about science is that it is always changing. Coffee and dark chocolate and red wine are bad for us, except when they are good for us. The innards of the atom and the inhabitants of this planet require further study. What seemed true yesterday might be disproved today; what seems true today might be shown to have been mistaken by tomorrow. Science itself is a useful tool for our lives, but it is only a tool. Science lacks the authority and stability to be a foundation for our lives.

When I was young, my parents invested in several series of books. They bought Funk &Wagnall’s encyclopedia set, one volume at a time. They also bought reference books on their hobbies, photography and sewing, that came out once a month for a year or two. To top it all, my parents bought the LIFE set of books about science—those colorful volumes that could be found in many living rooms and studies a number of years ago. I did a fair amount of research in those LIFE books, both for school assignments and for casual learning. As an adult, I was able to obtain a set of the same books for my family library. They look nice on the shelf, but they are heavy to move, and the science in them is old. They are useful to learn the history of science, but they cannot compete with the Internet for up-to-date descriptions of scientific theory and investigation. This reality was reinforced this month when I picked up one of those LIFE books and started reading it from page one.

This book from the LIFE Nature Library, is called “The Poles.” At describes the Arctic and Antarctic regions of the Earth, detailing climate, flora and fauna, human exploration and inhabitation, and research endeavors in the far north and the far south. I was fascinated to learn that the South Pole is colder than the North Pole because of the continent Antarctica; the ocean under the polar ice in the north moderates the temperature of the northern region. Also, because the polar ice sheet moves and shatters and reforms, it is difficult to establish the location of the North Pole at any given time—a flag planted there this summer might be several miles away from the Pole in the future. This book, which was published in 1962, has much interesting information about the polar regions, but science has learned far more information in the past sixty years. For that matter, accounts of human exploration of the north have been reviewed and found inaccurate; Robert Peary did not reach the North Pole in 1908, even though the LIFE editors were still willing to hand him the prize as recently as 1962.

Even sixty years ago, scientists studying Greenland and Antarctica had uncovered evidence that these bodies of land once supported “warm forests and plains.” This led the editors of “The Poles” to write these words in the third paragraph of their introduction to their book: “Today we are entering an era of unlimited power, when science may be able to alter the temperature balance and convert the cold regions to hospitable, productive ones. To do this would require the greatest political courage, for the rewards certainly would not be equally divided over all political borders. But if it were done, the problem of containing and feeding future generations could be solved. Unfortunately we as a nation are not yet confronted with the problem and we give it only token attention; but the world storms generated by hunger are brewing.”

Need I say more? J.

Grammar dalek and the pair tree

One of my elementary school teachers used a bulletin board for a class project which she called “The Pair Tree.” She used construction paper to create a tree trunk and branches and a few green leaves; then she cut out a number of yellow pear-shaped fruits to hand on the tree. Each fruit was to have two words which sound the same (homophones) such as—of course—pair and pear. She challenged the class to see how many pairs of homophones we could remember. With this creative exercise, she taught us to pay attention to words and to be aware of some of the tricky situations that arise in the English language.

In my work, in my private correspondence, and in my social media presence (including WordPress), I often notice writers who are confused by homophones or even by near-homophones. My eyes catch the mistakes. Usually I can ignore them and read the sentences for their intended meaning; sometimes misuse of words can grate upon my inner ear. Here, in alphabetical order, are seven pairs of homophones that often come to my attention:

Altar: a table-like structure upon which a sacrifice is offered; also used to describe the structure in a church building from which Holy Communion (the Lord’s Supper) is served to the congregation. Always used as a noun, except when someone is making a deliberate or accidental pun about changing a life by offering it to the Lord.

Alter: to change. Many things, from clothing to news reports, are altered, but rarely does such a change have anything to do with sacrifices.

Anecdote: a brief story, sometimes told for amusement or entertainment, but often used to illustrate a point in a conversation or a writing.

Antidote: a remedy or cure, frequently a medication given to counteract a poison. Rarely can an amusing story cure a problem, although a few such anecdotes might be the antidote to a boring speech.

Calvary: The hill outside Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified. From the Latin, translating the Aramaic “Golgotha,” which means “the place of the skull.” This hill, an outcropping of Mount Moriah (on which the Temple stood) evidently reminded people of a skull.

Cavalry: A military unit traveling and fighting on horseback. In the last hundred years or so, the term can be applied to fighters traveling in motorized vehicles. Family researchers and historians often say “Calvary” when they mean to say “cavalry.”

Counsel: Advice given to another; also, a team of lawyers involved in advising the prosecution or the defense in a trial. Some organizations maintain a salaried team of lawyers which they call their counsel.

Council: A group of people meeting to direct an organization. Churches, schools, businesses, and other entities, including government agencies, frequently are run by councils.

Lightening: making lighter—often used to describe a change in weight, whether literal or metaphorical (“The encouragement of his friends was lightening his burden.”) Can also be used of colors or colored objects (including the sky) becoming less dark.

Lightning: An enormous spark of electricity, jumping from cloud to cloud or from cloud to ground. Generally occurring in storms and often accompanied by thunder. Sadly, not effective in weight reduction.

Ordinance: A rule, often made by a council. For some reason, this word seems to apply more to city regulations than to state or national regulations.

Ordnance: Artillery, or guns, generally mounted. Also a short-hand label for the military unit in charge of such equipment.

Personal: Applying to a person, frequently used to describe matters that should not be shared with the general public or with a larger group of people. Confidential records might be labeled “personal.”

Personnel: The list of people working for an organization or agency. Such a list would generally be available to anyone interested, although some personnel details (including salaries and work evaluations) might be considered personal.

Please note that spell-check programs will not ask you which of these meanings you intend when you are typing. If you want to say that an idea “struck like lightning” but you type “lightening,” the mistake will be published unless you catch it yourself. J.

Easter hymn

Christ is arisen

From the grave’s dark prison.

So let our song exulting rise:

Christ with comfort lights our eyes. Alleluia!

All our hopes were ended

Had Jesus not ascended

From the grave triumphantly

Our never-ending life to be. Alleluia!

Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

So let our song exulting rise:

Christ, our comfort, fills the skies. Alleluia!

Traditional German Easter hymn, ca. 1100.