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Scott spent the week pondering the question Dr. Pop asked at the end of their last meeting: What is history? It was a tougher question than Scott originally thought. The more he thought about it, the more complicated it became. The answer once seemed so certain. But now he wasn't so sure.
On the internet, he found a range of answers, some sounding close to his understanding of the subject. Others were not sufficiently inclusive. And still others were simply silly. Scott couldn't make up his mind whose definition he liked best.
He appreciated those definitions that suggested history was comprehensive—the study of man in time, the story of civilization—but he felt they were also too vague. He needed something more specific, something that encompassed all he had learned over the past weeks.
Then there were the cynical explanations—history defined as a lie commonly agreed upon; or as a constant argument over events which don't matter and probably never occurred; or, Henry Ford's ultimate rebuke, “History is more or less bunk.”
Scott Tennyson rejected them as more or less smart aleck definitions.
He consulted another source. He decided to ask his friends and family what they felt history to be. “History is the past,” answered his sister Jennifer. “It's the record of what happened,” according to his father. Scott's mother sounded a little more intellectual. She defined history as “the summation of what is known about events in the past, but not necessarily everything that happened in the past.” Essentially, however, she was saying the same thing as the rest of the Tennyson family.
At school the answers were not very helpful. When Scott asked a good friend, the answer was predictable: “History is boring. I hate it.” Another friend called it, “Memory, memory, memory—dull, dull, dull.” Still another responded bluntly, “I don't know. You're The King of All History. Why ask me, your highness?”
In her reply Mrs. Sweeney, his history teacher, was not too helpful either. She paraphrased the 18th century French thinker, Voltaire; calling it “a joke played on the living by the dead—or was it the other way around, a joke played on the dead by the living.”
“Do you really believe history is a joke?” Scott asked in dismay. “You know much more than we do. Maybe, if history is a joke, we shouldn't worry very much about exams and grades.”
“No, Scott, I was only trying to be a little witty, as was Voltaire” she conceded. “Let me think, more seriously this time. I would say that history is the record of all we have done as humans. More specifically, history is an intellectual subject through which we learn lessons—good ones and bad ones—from events in our collective past. In that way history is a guidebook for the predictable consequences of decisions civilization makes in the present.
”Let me put it in the overused words of the Spanish philosopher Georges Santayana: ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” This warning may be a bit trite, but I think it still applies.”
Scott wasn't completely satisfied with the answers he was receiving. He spent the weekend tossing it around in his brain. Still nothing seemed to say it all. So, on Monday he returned to the city library to investigate the topic further. He still had a few days before his next visit to the Professor, and he was determined to be prepared.
If anything, the library trip only added to Scott's confusion. What he discovered was an academic field of study called historiography in which historians for centuries had debated their scholarship and in the process argued over what constituted history. The meaning of history, its schools of scholarship, and the philosophy of the subject—Scott found many new dimensions to the discipline. In fact, there were too many new aspects for his young mind to grasp in the few days remaining until his return to The History Shoppe.
Nonetheless, he pressed on. In the process, he continued to learn about the concept of history; but he never found that single nugget, the short, profound definition that explained it all.
By Tuesday evening, Scott was exasperated. As he explained to his mother after dinner, he had been diligent in his quest, but needed more time to find the perfect definition. “Maybe Professor Papadopoulos will give me another week to think about the answer,” he remarked.
“Are you sure you need more time?” she asked. “Maybe the perfect answer you're seeking is not to be found in some else's quote.”
“What do you mean, mom?” Scott replied. “I've been reading a lot and just haven't found it yet. But I know there is a great definition out there, somewhere.”
Mrs. Tennyson looked at her son understandingly. “That's not my point,” she answered. “What I'm saying is that with all you've experienced at The History Shoppe and from your independent research, maybe the best definition is to be found right here.” With that, she gently poked her finger at Scott's head. “You've got the brains, so use them. Come to your own conclusions about what history is.”
Scott was a bit astounded at first, but the more he contemplated the charge, the better it sounded. “That's a terrific idea, mom,” he blurted out. “I'll do just that. I think I'll sit down, do some serious thinking, and come up with my own definition. That's a great idea.”
“Well, that's what moms are for,” boasted Mrs. Tennyson in humorous exaggeration. “Now, you go and figure it out,” she commanded, shooing Scott out of the kitchen.
As he retreated to his room, Scott grew increasingly excited about drawing his own answer to the question. Granted, the famous people whose quotations were on the internet and in books knew much more about history than he, but Dr. Pop had asked him, not any of them, to define the concept. He realized that it was a compliment to have been asked by Professor Papadopoulos—and he almost insulted the old man by returning with someone else's understanding.
For the next several hours the young historian searched his thoughts for answers. Just as the use of STAMPIERE had guided him in assessing complex problems from a variety of perspectives, so too did he consider the Professor's question from many different angles. The answer, he concluded, could not be as simple as “history is the past” because history had many facets that needed to be part of any explanation. And yet, because the concept was so wide-ranging and inclusive, his definition had to capture the immensity of the subject. Scott concluded that his could not define history in a sentence or two. His answer needed to be more elaborate.
From his brain-storming session, he decided that history was like a great edifice. At its foundation was the straight-forward assertion: “History is about what happened in the past.” Atop this base, he concluded, were levels of complexity that rested like floors in a tall office building: distinct, yet integrally linked to everything below and above.
Scott concluded that there were seven floors in this symbolic office building
FIRST FLOOR: History is a universal concept . From a wise elder in an African village committing the village's record to memory because there is no written language, to the great German historians of the 19th century producing yearbooks in order to record everything that happened in a single year, to young students like Scott around the world investigating the past, human beings everywhere have an urgent curiosity to know and record what came before.
SECOND FLOOR: History is inclusive . Whatever exists, or existed, is worthy of historical study. Be it the history of Australia, the history of baseball, the history of biology, the history of ice cream, everything has its story and people somewhere want to know it and understand it.
THIRD FLOOR: History provides continuity . It is an adhesive that binds the contemporary to its past and in the process gives perspective and meaning to what is done today.
FOURTH FLOOR: History is a methodology . Something may have happened, but it must be discovered and rediscovered through conscientious historical research, and honest presentation in books and magazines, films and video, photographs, sound recordings, written records, internet exposure, and oral tradition. If it passes from the human record, it never happened.
FIFTH FLOOR: History must be preserved . As rational human beings, we must save our own past. Too frequently we discard the letters, the movies, the printed documents, and other fragile recordings in which our story exists and from which we discover that story. And, with every loss goes a portion of our fullest understanding.
SIXTH FLOOR: History is democratic . It is a field of study open to everyone. In communicating history, professors are certainly important. But so, too, are journalists presenting the daily news, museum workers exhibiting artifacts, history buffs dressed in period costumes re-enacting classic battles, even commuters reading biographies while on the way to and from work. TV documentary makers are historians; school children studying the past are historians; elderly men and women relating their experiences to their children and grandchildren are also historians. It is all about us because we are all in history.
Seventh Floor : History is Truth . It is not total truth, because we have not investigated or preserved everything needed to know the totality of whatever happened. But, we must strive to know as fully as possible. As a result, history must continually be reinvestigated and reinterpreted, as if engaged in an endless debate, but always with the goal of achieving a fuller description of Truth.
By the time Scott had finished constructing his definition, it was too late to share his accomplishment with the family. His parents and sister were in bed. But at breakfast the following morning, he proudly read his conclusions. And everyone applauded his insight. “That's pretty sophisticated,” Jennifer admitted grudgingly, “I'm impressed.” Mr. Tennyson called it a sign that Scott should think about majoring in history when he eventually entered college. The most satisfied family member, however, was Mrs. Tennyson. She understood better than anyone that Scott was not only maturing mentally, but he was becoming remarkably insightful and intelligent.
“I don't see how the Professor can criticize your definition,” Mrs. Tennyson remarked. “I'm betting he will be pleased with you, even if he won't part with that old coin.”
“I sure hope he's impressed,” Scott replied. “As for that coin, I think he just didn't want to give it up. I think it's something special to him. But I forgot to remind him last week that you wanted to buy it. I'll do that when I see him this afternoon.”
Mrs. Tennyson shrugged off her disappointment, adding “Don't worry about it. It was just a passing fancy. Meanwhile, you and Jennifer had better get going or you'll both be late for school.”
Throughout the school day, Scott was mentally rehearsing his presentation to Professor Papadopoulos. He considered offering his definition to Mrs. Sweeney for her opinion, but he decided against it. She might treat it like an answer on a test and start to make corrections. Besides, this was his handiwork, and Scott wanted it untouched until he presented it at The History Shoppe.
When the final school bell rang, Scott was quickly on his way. He reread his definition several times as he hiked to the now-familiar turn on Third Street , then down Third to Dr. Pop's store.
But as he approached The History Shoppe, Scott became disoriented. The cobblestone path was gone; for that matter, the Victorian mansion was not there. In fact, the property was now a vacant lot with weeds, a narrow footpath worn into the grass, and a few rusting cans. The Professor and his store had completely disappeared.
Scott was confounded. After reassuring himself that wasn't in the middle of a dream, he checked to be sure he was on the correct street—and he was. “What happened?” he wondered aloud. “Am I going crazy? Or, have I already gone crazy?”
Just to be certain, he entered a clothing store bordering the empty lot. “Excuse me,” he said to the saleslady, “but can you tell me what happened to the building next door?”
“What building next door? There's nothing next door.” she answered. “We're located next to a vacant lot. There's a delicatessen across the street, but we've been here for years without a next door neighbor.”
This was baffling to Scott. “But just last week there was a large old house on that lot, and it was a store. It was called The History Shoppe,” he explained with urgency. “And there was the old man, Professor Papadopoulos . He was the proprietor. And the store had this old bell which rang every time you entered or left.”
“Oh, I remember old Papadopoulos,” the saleslady said, “but he ran a butcher shop on Elmwood Avenue .” She then turned toward a storeroom at the rear of the boutique. “Hey, Frank,” she yelled to someone in that back room, “You remember Papadopoulos, the old Greek guy who ran the butcher shop. Whatever happened to him?”
“That was Pappas, not Papadopoulos, George Pappas. He retired and sold his place years ago,” Frank hollered from behind a curtain.
“Oh, I'm sorry. Guess I mixed up my Greeks,” she said to Scott, slightly embarrassed by her case of mistaken identity. “No, young man, no one has operated a business on that land next door for as long as I can remember. Are you sure you're on the correct street?”
Bewildered by these developments, Scott thanked the woman for her help and slowly left her store. “Where did everything go?” he wondered as he stepped into the empty lot. “There's nothing here to even suggest there ever was a History Shoppe,” he said to himself as he stopped on the footpath and kicked at the dirt. “This is more than bizarre.”
Scott's mind turned quickly to self-doubt. Maybe it was it all a dream, a hallucination. No, he concluded, he was wide awake; and, as proof that his experiences were authentic, he had his definition nicely printed out and ready to share with the Professor.
But this lot looked like it had been here for many years. How could the old wooden house be replaced by a vacant lot in one week? Not possible. “It all must have been in my imagination, a figment of my mind,” he reluctantly concluded.
But, Scott didn't really believe this. He had no answer for what had just happened. He felt nothing but confusion wrapped in great disappointment. He had come to treasure his weekly conference with Dr. Pop, and he was inspired by his involvement with the old films and artifacts. In fact, the more Scott thought about this turn of events, the closer he came to tears. He was devastated.
As he slowly walked back toward the sidewalk, Scott's eye caught the glimmer from something lying in the thin weeds but reflecting the afternoon sun. When he reached down for a closer inspection, he saw that it was a clear plastic case, the small holder in which coin collectors meticulously place each of their prized collectibles.
The young man was stunned, however, when he looked more closely and recognized what was in the small holder. It was the 12 denier French coin from 1791, the one he investigated for the Professor, the piece of money his mother wanted to buy.
His mind raced to comprehend what was happening. He had many questions: Where did the coin come from? How could it be here when there was nothing else here, and had been nothing here for as long as people could remember? How could he find a familiar coin when everything that made it familiar had vanished, if it had ever really existed?
Scott placed the coin in his shirt pocket and headed for home. “My folks are not going to believe this,” he thought as he walked deep in contemplation and perplexity. “How will I explain everything that happened today and over the past weeks?”
As he began to fashion an answer to this puzzle, Scott remembered something important. He recalled his promise to Dr. Pop never to speak to others about the Clio machine and his visits within the old films. This meant that he could not tell his family or friends everything about his historical experiences or the baffling disappearance of The History Shoppe. Still, for his own sanity, Scott had to find some explanation of what had just happened.
There was something else, too, that the Professor said that now popped into the young man's mind, and it intrigued him. Dr. Pop had spoken about Clio having had personal contact with everyone who ever became an historian. As Scott recalled it, the Professor said that all of our great historians had been visited by the muse of history, but they never spoke publically about it. To do so would be to shatter the ties of inspiration that Clio imparted. “Every historian before you has kept this confidence,” Dr. Pop had confided. “It must remain your personal secret.”
The more he walked, the more his reasoning led him to a single conclusion. At first he dismissed it. “Maybe the muse visited me—but, nah, that couldn't be,” he said to himself. Still, the more he contemplated his situation, the more he became convinced that The History Shoppe was some sort of mythical initiation test, a fantastic communion between himself and History.
“Dr. Pop said that that's the way it had always been,” Scott thought. The fact that these contacts were never discussed in print or even communicated by word of mouth suggested to Scott that historians must have always honored this oath of secrecy. No one had ever divulged the details of how he or she entered the special community of historical scholars. It was a rite of passage that was highly private.
He wondered if The History Shoppe, itself, had appeared to everyone who had ever become a historian. And he wondered if Professor Papadopoulos was simply an agent of the muse, or maybe even a disguise for the actual Clio. Scott wondered, but he knew he could never know with certainty because he could never compare his experience with those of other historians.
But life had changed a lot for Scott. He decided that from now on he was a part of the tradition. Indeed, he decided that had been visited and that he was now initiated. He was now a historian.Approaching his home, he reached into his pocket and retrieved the old coin. He inspected it again, just to be sure it was intact. Scott decided that he would give the coin to his mother and tell her that it was a present from Dr. Pop. But he knew it was actually the Professor's award to him, a graduation gift in honor of his achievement in historical understanding. And that made Scott Tennyson feel very gratified, even a little bemused.
|Copyright © 2009 J. Fred MacDonald-All Rights Reserved.|