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WORLD FOCUS: Past as prologue

December 6, 2013
FRANK SHATZ , Lake Placid News

The phrase, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," coined by Harvard philosopher George Santayana, has validity only if you have knowledge of the past. And to be able to reflect on the past, you have to have knowledge of history.

In a recent essay commissioned, by the American Historical Association, the writer posed the question, "Why should anyone bother learning about things that happened far away and long ago? Isn't there quite enough to learn about the world today?"

"The study of history is indeed worthwhile and necessary for the education of effective citizens and worthy human begins. Historical knowledge is no more or less than carefully and critically constructed collective memory. As such, it can both make us wiser in our public choices and more richly human in our private lives."

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Paul Aron

Paul Aron, director of publications and writer for Colonial Williamsburg, as well as the author of several books on American history, has devoted his professional life to familiarize readers of all ages with stories from our nation's history that illuminate our national character.

"Write what you know, goes the old saying," he said in an interview with the Lake Placid News and the Virginia Gazette. "But I write what I don't know and what I hope others want to find out about."

Thus, when he heard recitations of famous words from the founders of our nation, like the ones uttered by Patrick Henry, "Give me liberty or give me death!" or Benjamin Franklin's proverbs, he wondered how we knew for sure what Henry or Franklin said.

"I researched the stories behind the words and turned into a book called 'We Hold These Truths,'" he said.

Then, Aron, started wondering about the stories behind American images. Did Betsy Ross really have anything to do with the American flag? How did that portrait of Washington end up on the dollar bill? How did we end up with the eagle as a national symbol, even though Franklin wanted the turkey? That led to his new book, "Why the Turkey Didn't Fly."

While working for Colonial Williamsburg, Aron always keeps in mind CW's mission "that the future may learn from the past."

He sounds a cautious note.

"You have to be careful," he said. "There is always a danger that people see in the past only the parts they want to see, and draw from it lessons they want to learn. The way Colonial Williamsburg portrays the past has changed over the years. The stories portrayed in today's 'Revolutionary City,' are far more complex and nuanced than anything in John D. Rockefeller's time."

In addition, he said, history ought to be fun.

"That's what you get from Revolutionary City, and from the historians people love to read, great stories," Aron said.

As director of publications, Aron sees his mission to publish books that grow out of research done at Colonial Williamsburg.

"This year, for example," he said, "we published Carolyn Weekley's 'Painters and Paintings in the Early American South' and John Watson's 'Changing Keys' about keyboard instruments. Both books grew out of major exhibitions at our museums."

He also pointed out that some CW publications tend to present American history through the lens of key American values and the tensions between them. A book like "The Idea of America," which grew out of a digital program CW produced for high school students, "gets to the core of the foundation mission, in that it pushes readers to think about controversial issues, past and present, from a new perspective."

Considering that we are in the book-giving season, and he has such a broad knowledge about American historical literature, I asked Aron, which author's work he would recommend.

"I don't think you can go wrong reading anything by Walter Isaacson, Gordon Wood, David Hackett Fisher, Joseph Ellis or Jack Rakove," he said. "All important historians of the Revolutionary period and all superb writers. I'm currently reading and enjoying John Ferling's 'Jefferson and Hamilton: The Rivalry That Forged a Nation.' It is a dual biography of two founders whose competing visions of America went a long way toward defining who we are today."

American character, however, was shaped also by regional differences. One of those differences is symbolized by the Adirondack frontiersmen. How it has survived and made a living in the rugged mountain region, is the subject of Andy Flynn's "Adirondack Attic" book series.

Frank Shatz lives in Williamsburg, Va. and Lake Placid. His column was reprinted with permission from the Virginia Gazette.



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