Monday, June 23, 2008

Genealogy and History Thoughts Column 14 - My Thoughts on Another "Genealogy is Bunk" Article

A few weeks ago, I noticed that Randy had posted on another "Genealogy is Bunk" article, and I thought I would post my response. I realize I am late in responding to the article. I had originally planned to post on this article at the time Randy posted on the article, but I never got around to writing this column at that time until now. (I was also going to post on the Vatican and Mormon records controversy, but I do not think I will now as too much time has passed and many other bloggers have covered the topic.)

So, why should I care now, weeks after the fact? Well, I thought I should respond because of Mr. McKinstry's accusations and because of his reference to the growing lack of knowledge of history. I realize that he is only writing about conditions in the United Kingdom, but the situation with the lack of knowledge in history is similar to the situation in the United States. Those who are my age or younger generally lack a good knowledge of history, and I do not believe genealogy is the reason for the decline in knowledge. No, the apathy of a majority of youth towards history, due to the way history is taught, is the cause for the decline. In public schools, history classes are associated with the memorization of dates and facts. If a student is just expected to memorize some dates and basic facts for a test, what need is there for a student to remember? Or to be interested in history when it is just a few basic facts and does not have any connection to him or her? To explain what I mean, here is an example:

Suppose a student was learning about Andrew Jackson in U. S. history class, and that student learned that Andrew Jackson was the seventh President of the United States from 1829 to 1837. Do you think that student will find these facts interesting or will want to have an interest in history? My guess is probably not. Or suppose this student also learns that Andrew Jackson ran for President in 1824 but did not get the office, even though he had the popular vote, and that Jackson's opponents accused John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay of stealing the election. Would this student be interested now? Maybe, but I wouldn't be surprised if the student still found history boring. Or suppose in addition to learning this, this student also learns that he had an ancestor who was a supporter of Andrew Jackson. Would this same student be more interested in history? My guess is that the history of this time period would have more meaning to that student.

Of course, this only a hypothetical situation, and doesn't necessarily mean students would suddenly become more interested in history. But I think it would help make history more relevant to students. In my case, genealogy has helped make history come alive for me. As I wrote in Column 3, just reading an article in a newspaper from the area my ancestors lived brought history to life. I did learn about the event from school, but learning from a textbook only made it feel one dimensional to me. (And I love history.) Yet, when I was doing research on my family, it brought what I learned in class to life. I was not and am not trying to do away my country's history; genealogy just brings history to life and help reinforce what I learned. For me, it gives history context. Genealogy has also forced me to learn the geography of the areas that my ancestors lived, and to learn the history of other countries where my ancestors lived. Plus, I have had to learn at least one foreign language to be able to go back for some of my ancestors, and I'll probably have to learn at least another language to continue my research. If studying history, geography and foreign languages are legitimate, why is genealogy not legitimate?

Of course, I can only speak for myself, but I am sure genealogy has helped other genealogists to remember or learn the history of their country. I don't believe genealogists are trying to replace a national history; I think they are trying to reaffirm and acknowledge their nation's history by figuring out how the events of history affected their ancestors. Our ancestors did not live in a vacuum; events in their country and around the world affected them as well. Combining genealogy with a nation's history gives context and understanding to why things happened the way they did. Social historians, archaeologists and anthropologists study the way common people lived, and genealogists are doing the same, except that it is on their own families. If it is legitimate for a historian to study how the average person lived in a certain time period, why should it not be legitimate for genealogists to do the same, in the context of their own families? For it is not just kings, queens, military officers and politicians who make history; average, everyday people also make history. Wars could not be fought without the participation of common people, and movements for change could not occur without the participation of the average person. Common people play just as much of an important role in history as their leaders do.

Genealogy, though, is much more than just a teaching tool for history. It could also save lives. When a person studies his or her family history, that person inevitably learns about his family's medical history. If one's ancestors died of an inheritable disease like cancer or heart disease, it could save that person and their family members' lives by forcing them to take action to change their lifestyles or get medical check-ups. Only a few months ago, their was news about the discovery of a family's history of colon cancer. Through the study of their DNA, doctors and geneticists were able to determine the cause of this family's colon cancer was caused by a genetic mutation, and they were able to narrow down the genetic mutation to one couple who came to America in the 1600s. Obviously, the study of this family's ancestry and medical history enabled scientists and doctors to figure out the mutation in their genes. If they could do it for this disease, in this family's incidence, who is to say that wouldn't be able to do so for another family. In addition, if one knows that they are susceptible to a certain disease, he or she might be able to catch it early enough to live a longer life. Is not the study of genealogy legitimate, if only for this reason?

I could probably go on and on, but I think it is obvious that most genealogists are not doing genealogy to be snobby. There are legitimate uses for genealogy. Of course, I could be wrong about my analysis. So, what do you think? As always, you can leave a comment with your thoughts.


my Heritage Happens said...

Jessica, I enjoyed your thoughts, this was a great article, even if you feel it was posted late. High school history was very boring just learning names dates and events. I didn't pay much attention back then and now I wish I had. It didn't interest me, but now it does. I agree that the way it is taught has a lot to do with it. It needs to be made more interesting one way or another. Great post! Cheryl

Amanda Erickson said...

Great post! Got me thinking about why I like genealogy so much. Realized that it's because of the history I learn and how my family fits into it. Never could put my finger on it before.

Craig Manson said...

Okay, so now I'm commenting late to your late post! Jessica, I agree with everything you said. Here I am having been a college professor and now a law school prof, and I can tell you (sheepishly) that there are parts of US history about which I had little or no understanding until I got into genealogy at age 50! I've learned so much in the last four or five years that I wish I had really learned in high school!