Take History Seriously — Don’t Be Dumbed Down

In the 21st century, "St. James the Moor-Slayer" still gets a place of honor in many Spanish churches.
Reichstag, Berlin, Germany
The new glass dome atop Germany’s parliament building comes with a point.

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Contrary to conventional wisdom, a history degree is practical. Back when I got my degree, I was encouraged to also earn a business degree, so I’d leave the university with something “useful.” I believe now that if more people had a history degree and put it to good use, this world would be better off. Yesterday’s history informs today’s news…which becomes tomorrow’s history. Those with a knowledge of history can understand today’s news in a broader context and respond to it more thoughtfully.

As you travel, opportunities to enjoy history are everywhere. Work on cultivating a general grasp of the sweep of history, and you’ll be able to inform your sightseeing with more meaning.

I was sitting on the summit of the Rock of Gibraltar, looking out at Africa. It’s the only place on earth where you can see two continents and two seas at the same time. The straits were churning with action. Where bodies of water meet, they create tide rips — confused, choppy teepee seas that stir up plankton, attracting little fish, birds, bigger fish…and fishermen balancing the risks and rewards of working those churning waters. The fertile straits are also busy with hungry whales, dolphins, and lots of ferries and maritime traffic. Boats cut through feeding grounds, angering environmentalists. And windsurfers catch a stiff breeze, oblivious to it all.

Looking out over the action, with the Pillars of Hercules in the misty Moroccan distance, I realized that there was an historical element in this combustible mix. Along with seas and continents, this is also where, for many centuries, two great civilizations — Islam and Christendom — have come together, creating cultural tide rips. Centuries after Muslims from North Africa conquered Catholic Spain, Spain eventually triumphed, but was irrevocably changed in the process. Where civilizations meet, there are risks…and rewards. It can be dangerous, it can be fertile, and it shapes history.

Later that day — still pondering Islam and Christendom rubbing like tectonic plates — I stepped into a small Catholic church. Throughout Spain, churches display statues of a hero called “St. James the Moor-Slayer.” And every Sunday, good 21st-century Christians sit — probably listening to sermons about tolerance — under this statue of James, his sword raised, heroic on his rearing horse, with the severed heads of Muslims tumbling all around him. It becomes even more poignant when you realize that the church is built upon on the ruins of a mosque, which was built on the ruins of a church, which was built on the ruins of a Roman temple, which was built on the ruin of an earlier pagan holy place. Standing there, it occurred to me that the recent friction between Christendom and Islam is nothing new and nothing we can’t overcome. But it’s more than the simple shoot-‘em-up with good guys and bad guys, as often presented to us by politicians and the media. Travel, along with a sense of history, helps us better understand its full complexity.

News in modern times is history in the making, and travelers can actually be eyewitnesses to history as it unfolds. I was in Berlin in 1999, just as their renovated parliament building re-opened to the public. For a generation, this historic Reichstag building — where some of the last fighting of World War II occurred on its rooftop — was a bombed-out and blackened hulk, overlooking the no-man’s-land between East and West Berlin. After unification, Germany’s government returned from Bonn to Berlin. And, in good European style, the Germans didn’t bulldoze their historic capitol building. Instead, recognizing the building’s cultural roots, they renovated it — incorporating modern architectural design, and capping it with a glorious glass dome.

Germany’s old/new parliament building comes with powerful architectural symbolism. It’s free to enter, open long hours, and designed for German citizens to climb its long spiral ramp to the very top and literally look down (through a glass ceiling) over the shoulders of their legislators to see what’s on their desks. The Germans, who feel they’ve been manipulated by too many self-serving politicians over the last century, are determined to keep a closer eye on their leaders from now on.

Spiraling slowly up the ramp to the top of that dome during that festive opening week, I was surrounded by teary-eyed Germans. Now, anytime you’re surrounded by teary-eyed Germans…something exceptional is going on. Most of those teary eyes were old enough to remember the difficult times after World War II, when their city lay in rubble. For these people, the opening of this grand building was the symbolic closing of a difficult chapter in the history of a great nation. No more division. No more fascism. No more communism. They had a united government and were entering a new century with a new capitol.

It was a thrill to be there. I was caught up in it. But then, as I looked around at the other travelers up there with me, I realized that only some of us fully grasped what was going on. Some tourists seemed so preoccupied with trivialities — forgotten camera batteries, needing a Coke, the lack of air-conditioning — that they were missing out on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to celebrate a great moment with the German people. And it saddened me. I thought, “I don’t want to be part of a dumbed-down society.”

I worry that the mainstream tourism industry encourages us be dumbed down. To many people, travel is only about having fun in the sun, shopping duty-free, and cashing in frequent-flyer miles. But to me, that stuff distracts us from the real thrills, rewards, and value of travel. In our travels — and in our everyday lives — we should become more educated about and engaged with challenging issues, using the past to understand the present. The more you know, and the more you strive to learn, the richer your travels and your life become.

In my own realm as a travel teacher, if I have the opportunity to lead a tour, write a guidebook, or make a TV show, I take it with the responsibility to respect and challenge the intellect of my travelers, readers, or viewers. All of us will gain more from our travels if we refuse to be dumbed down. Promise yourself and challenge your travel partners to be engaged and grapple with the challenging issues while on the road. Your experience will be richer for it.


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