Geoff Johnson: Family history personalizes history

Speaking at the 2016 commencement ceremonies at Harvard, film director Steven Spielberg quoted author Michael Crichton: “If you don’t know history, you don’t know anything.”

Spielberg said the fact that “social media is about the here and now” but that it is equally important for our kids seeking to know “who we are” to also understand “who we were.”

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Speaking of the U.S. but equally reflective of Canada, Spielberg urged students to “talk to your parents and grandparents … and ask them their stories.”

At about the same time, there arrived mail from an Australian cousin containing two pictures, one of my maternal grandparents’ home taken last week in Maitland, New South Wales, and a second taken right after the disastrous 1955 floods when the Hunter River overflowed into that city and through the front door of Grandpa’s home. The second picture showed family members cleaning up after the flood before moving my grandparents to a safer town.

Those pictures got me thinking about my family history.

My grandparents on my mother’s side were the children of dirt-poor Irish immigrants. My mother was the eldest of seven children, my father the eldest of four. By the time Dad was 13, both his parents had died, and to support his brother and sisters, he left school and went to work on the roads. No social-service safety net for kids in those days.

Studying family history can bring the rest of history alive. An ancestor on my mother’s side was born into Irish poverty in New South Wales in 1840 and led a colourful life as a minor outlaw. That led me to a more intense study of the history of the political and religious conflicts and divisions between the English ruling class and the Irish immigrant class of the day, discords that formed the basis for enmities still apparent in Australian politics today.

Studying family history can provide insight into a wider world of historical knowledge.

Australia, like Canada, is a country of immigrants: Commonwealth countries but with different histories. Somehow both countries, built on the efforts of immigrant families like my immediate ancestors, blended all that into today’s nations.

So we teach history in our schools, but I wonder if we should also be providing our kids with the tools to study the histories of their families.

It would be an eye-opener for today’s kids to learn what is in their own DNA and where that came from — and why.

A.J. Jacobs is an author, journalist and lecturer. His next book will be about the value of genealogy, especially to our kids.

“What children learn when they find out about their past,” he wrote, “is primarily that they can chart their own course … They also learn that they are part of something bigger than themselves.

“When you’re a kid, you think you’re the most important, you’re the only person out there, the world revolves around you and this is just one way to show them no, you are part of this massive world … one link in the chain.”

A 2010 study conducted at Atlanta’s Emory University involved asking children a range of questions about their family background. The authors found that the more children knew about family history, the higher their self-esteem and the better they were at dealing with stress.

Making a connection between what children learn in school and their family history personalizes history.

Were your ancestors in Canada in 1869 at the time of the Red River Rebellion? Who were they and where did they live? Do you have ancestors lost in either of the great wars? Why were those wars fought? Why were your ancestors involved and on which side?

Did your ancestors emigrate from Europe? What were the circumstances that caused them to travel so far to land on Canada’s shores?

History beyond our borders and the geography of ancestral homelands means more when it is about a student’s own family.

William Faulkner summed up the importance of our kids understanding not just history but the history of the people who form part of who they are now: “The past is not dead. It isn’t even the past.”

Geoff Johnson is a retired superintendent of schools.

gfjohnson4@shaw.ca

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