Is there a connection between happiness and History—the tedious, sleep-inducing subject that I was forced to study year after year in school? I was generally a good student, but I remember the “D” on my fourth grade report card as if it was a pimple on my chin.
My dislike of History did not wane when I began college at California State University, Northridge. Why memorize dates, battles and the names of dead white guys, who had no relevance to my life? In retaliation, I invented jokes about these dead white guys with my accomplice in crime: classmate Bill Berle (comedian Milton Berle’s son). Like inmates in adjacent cells, we made the best of our stay in the slammer—Western Civilization class—by whispering, by passing notes, and by generally disrespecting the material—always careful not to draw unfavorable attention from our warden, the professor. The subject matter was highly conducive to ridicule because it included details about the sex lives of Greeks and other ancient peoples. Let’s just say Rick Santorum would not have condoned their behavior.
This brings me to Colin Quinn, the magically funny and devastatingly handsome (but since I am married, I naturally did not notice) comedian. He was performing his brilliant one-man show “Long Story Short” to a sold-out crowd in Palm Desert, California. From my seat behind bird lady (some annoying woman with a peacock feather hat), I watched Colin explore the messed up cultures of the past and masterfully connect them with the messed up cultures of today. He joked that “Ancient Greek kids were just like us. They watched 40 hours of theater per week.” He said that democracy had disintegrated into “Lil Wayne and Girls Gone Wild” and that the Holy Roman Empire was mostly about priests and lots of jewelry.
In addition to nonstop laughs on historical topics, the show offered profound insights. I was particularly intrigued by Colin’s observation that (the pursuit of) “happiness” is part of Declaration of Independence, yet “no other country has made it their policy to cheer people up.” How ironic, I thought. The one country that aims to link history with happiness is largely comprised of folks who believe studying the past is dreary and a waste of time.
Apathy naturally leads to ignorance. According to a Newsweek poll, 29 percent of U.S. citizens cannot name the vice-president and 73 percent are hazy about the reasons for the cold war. In a separate study by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, test takers knew more about American Idol than the Gettysburg Address, and only half could list the three branches of government: executive, legislative and judicial. In the end, 71 percent of study participants were graded “F”—a pretty big pimple, if you ask me.
According to even more studies, Europeans outperform Americans on “historical facts about the world” and there are traditional explanations for this: our broken educational system, the ever-widening income gap in the U.S., the abundance of dull and somniferous textbooks, the more intellectually oriented European culture, and the fact that America is a large land, separated from most other nations by a whole lot of water. There is an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality—it is difficult to care about stuff so far away.
But I have a final theory, which I call “cut your losses and run.” Since Americans start the race 200 paces behind Europeans, why try in the first place? As a nation, we feel disadvantaged historically speaking, so why further embarrass ourselves? We are arguably reluctant to expend effort. We are a new country. We lack the rich traditions and delightful 500-year-old structures. We are better at state-of-the-art and innovation. We fizzle when reminiscing over gray-haired institutions, outmoded customs, and long dead ancestors. Why play a game we cannot win?
As a competitive and success-oriented people, we’d rather focus on our strengths: being specialized and making money. History is sort of like Latin. It leads to unemployment. History is for old codgers wearing ascots and lapel pins. America is about youth, energy, and advancement. It is about bulldozing the old and making way for the modern. Many of us shoved History into the coat closet years ago; and when confronted by polls (or Jay Leno in a “jaywalking” gag), our apathy becomes evident. We pull dusty, moth-eaten ideas from that closet and mostly end up with wrong answers and blank stares.
Colin made me realize that although I cannot say happiness is History, learning about the past can add texture to my life. To make a long story short, I now realize I am a 17th -Century-Holland gal, just as someone else might be an Iron Age enthusiast or a Shang Dynasty devotee. History can transport me beyond today. It can be a form of spirituality. While life is casually reading a book, studying the footnotes can add a dimension or richness that I might not otherwise know.
After the show, I went backstage to schmooze with Colin and to tell him that he’d succeeded in his policy to cheer people up. Pursuing happiness is easier when he is in the room.
Plus, he’s devastatingly handsome (but, of course, I did not notice).
Published in Huffington Post on March 20, 2012.