PAPERWORK: When studying history be sure to include yourself

Confession: I had trouble digesting history classes in high school.

I blame the menu. I had no appetite for the massive platefuls of dates and names.

History became a chronology of events that I was forced to memorize.

Those classes date back more than half a century. (They are history now. Ha! As am I. Groan.)

Gone but not completely forgotten. Even now I feel some pressure to make sure I never forget the significance of 1776. (Every country indoctrinates its children. In turn this customizes the definition of patriotism.)

Another confession: I still have trouble thinking in terms of dates. But there is something really important to note about all those names that were on that plate.

George Washington. Thomas Jefferson. Jump ahead to Winston Churchill, Hitler, and FDR.

Jump again to JFK, Martin Luther King, Bob Dylan.

Go ahead history buffs, apply the appropriate dates. Summarize the significance of time and place and circumstances and how they evolved. I agree that’s important.

The list of names is never-ending. Many never make it into a classroom lecture or get the attention they deserve.

Hey, that’s the way it is. Time and space will always be restrictive, limiting what we can learn. Who we can discover.

If I were teaching a history class, though, I’d try to expand the lessons.

Yes, history is a timeline, like a main artery or highway, an autobahn into the future.

You can chop it up with dates, events along the way, bumps and valleys. But most important — linked to those dates and potholes and bridges — are the neon signs.

The people who step outside the circle, took the podium, took a stand, picked up a tool, became a voice, and with power built something … or destroyed.

People who made a difference. They are the neon signs throughout history.

They will flash forever, I suspect. Some will always get attention in our homeland. Like George Washington. (How many books have been written on George?)

Many will not. At least on a national or international level. And that’s where we tend to plant those signs.

So class, all those flashing signs are important because of what resulted — good and bad.

But it’s also important to note each sign often represents one person — man or woman — an individual.

Think about how we hopscotch through time pointing to individuals. How we mark historical benchmarks with people … and their bios. (And dates, yeah, yeah.)

I do wonder at how we attach major historical events — with blame or praise — to a single individual.

I question how true that can be. Yet I have seen plenty of influence one person can have on a community … or a country … or the world.

There is a history lesson in this. Important to each of us, especially our children. You’ve heard it before.

The lesson being that one person — you or I — can create change. Beyond our family or community.

Change … good and bad.

All those neon signs along the highway of time are proof of that.

But it’s also important to know who put up those signs. Who keeps them flashing.

One person can make global history. Yes. But not alone.

There also will be those who support. Those who attack. And those who watch.

All three groups are part of the formula for any significant notch in the timeline.

Now class, I have this question … it will be on the final:

Which group do you think carries the most weight?

LONNY CAIN, of Ottawa, is the retired managing editor of The Times. Email to or mail The Times, 110 W. Jefferson St., Ottawa, IL 61350.