I heard a Fred Meyer ad on the radio, suggesting gift ideas prior to Father’s Day. “What do dads like?” began the announcer, implying that the listener should start a checklist. “Playing sports, and especially watching sports. And watching historical epics.” (Master and Commander or something was just out on video.)
Given. But, why do men love history? And women can take it or leave it (in my case, absolutely leave it)? Yes, of course, some women enjoy history, but even the blog for the American Association of University Women acknowledges this stereotype in a post that fumes about the gender bias of bookstores that sort the history magazines in the “men’s interest” section.
I posed this question to Ralph (who has been a lifelong consumer of the subject and labors tirelessly to bring it to life for his high school students). He didn’t disagree with the observation at all. “Because history is heroic,” he said. “And popular history—the kind you see on the History Channel—those are really good, simple stories that you don’t have to be very smart or sober to follow.” Yes but, I challenged, what about Lifetime? Those are stories. “Exactly,” he said. “For women. History is about men. The History Channel is Lifetime for men. And the stories are about a time when men dominated.”
“Men don’t like ambiguity,” he continued, “and men like sports for the same reasons they like history. It’s heroic, and it’s about other men. You put yourself in their place.”
Ralph paused thoughtfully to baste the chicken wings (this conversation was conducted at the barbeque, another Thing Dads Like). “Watching the History Channel or movies like ‘Troy’, that’s different than really studying history,” he mused. “That’s a bitch. Because then you run into things that aren’t manly, like ambiguity. And discipline.”
The kind of history we face at the official monuments and sites we visit is “national history” according to Ralph. “The ‘valiant struggle of the American patriots’, Bunker Hill, George Washington chopping down the cherry tree…anytime you go to a national monument, it’s the History Channel at best. Which isn’t bad—but you lose the real drama of what really happened.”
So, what do you get out of visiting all those forts and battlesites? I asked. Is it like a folk song, you’re accustomed to it, is it comforting?
“Not at all. It’s pretty simple,” he said. “Those forts are built on America’s sense of place in the world, and show a part of America that demonstrates a tremendous amount of technology for the time. I imagine being stationed there. What did it really look like? What were the conditions, the weather? The weapons? How did they live? The historical imagination process works on many different levels.”