I was an excellent student throughout the bulk of my academic career. While not super-crazy-smart like many of my friends, I possessed enough intelligence to do well in educational realms – provided I added considerable effort to the mix. From kindergarten through college, I really enjoyed school and the process of learning – so exerting the necessary energy required for me to earn high marks/good grades was never really a “chore”, but more just part of my school requirements (that is, if I wanted to do well and actually become educated, which I did). However, one academic area I struggled to find interesting was Social Studies/History; and because I failed to find the content intriguing, I often failed to learn the material at all. As a result, I don’t know much about world geography, world history, or the history of my country; nor do I know much about the various forms of world government, of possible world economic structures, or about the ways in which all of those above factors have influenced and shaped various nations’ relationships with each another. In short, my knowledge of topics in the domains of history, government, geography, economics, and politics is sorely lacking – and at times I am embarrassed by this.
Last year I embraced the notion of the 101 list for a variety of different reasons: to help me try things I otherwise might not make the effort or take the time to sample; to nudge me beyond what is comfortable and encourage myself to take more risks; to bring newness and freshness into my life on a regular basis – and in doing each of these things, to help me become a more well-rounded person. So one of the reasons my list has several history-related items on it is not because I adore that content, but precisely because I don’t enjoy that domain very much. While I’m skilled in many areas, I’m weak when it comes to Social Studies – so I figured it was time to take some action to help bring a little bit more academic balance to my life.
This week my country celebrated Independence Day – so it seemed like a good time to dig into list item #4, and read “The Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America” (which, conveniently, our local community newspaper included as a full-page spread in this week’s issue). For being such an important document, I was surprised at how relatively brief it is. Yet as I read through it, I felt like the authors said everything that needed to be stated, and did so clearly and compellingly. They didn’t feel the need to mince words, nor did they feel the need to repeat themselves ad nauseam. They simply said what they meant, stated it once, and trusted that the clarity and directness of their language would do the rest of the work – which it did, and still does even 236 years later. Beautiful.
For being such a ‘charged’ document (it’s tough to criticize other people without ruffling some feathers), I was surprised by how the text is written quite respectfully. The language is clear but not inappropriately callous, and the ‘argument’ for why the authors feel the way they do makes intuitive, logical sense. (Now, why these same individuals couldn’t see that the treatment they were clamoring for shouldn’t also be applied to all people [women, Native Americans, Africans, children, etc.] is a puzzle to me. But I digress…) I also felt that the spirit behind the document’s creation was one of prudence; in reading what is basically a letter to the king of England, I felt the internal conflict that existed among these men – and I genuinely appreciate the sleep they must have lost over implementing this decision and taking this bold, scary action.
I don’t think I could have made sense of various parts of the document without my past high school history education. The language within the text is dated, and the total context of the events that necessitated the creation of the letter is nothing that present-day humans in this country have ever lived through. But, since I do have that background knowledge, the power of the language that was used in this Declaration was even more impressive to me.
As I continued reading the document, I saw so much of this text setting the groundwork for the U.S. Constitution. And yet, sadly, I can see examples of other governments (including the United States) employing the very same tactics that are denounced in this text against other countries and peoples (especially around court and military actions). Experiencing this contrast of past ideals and present-day reality was emotionally difficult for me, especially since I felt the pain and frustration of the Declaration’s authors quite clearly, even amid the dated language. Yet despite my heart hurting a bit in reading the text, my mind was incredibly impressed with what these men achieved in creating this piece. Despite being written 236 years ago, the truths of this document are still 100% valid today. To me, this is a clear sign of individuals who were wise enough to be able to see the deep longing of all human existence, and smart enough to be able to capture that essence in black-and-white print. In reading the yearning contained in these people’s hearts, I felt comforted by the fact that despite changes in geography, economy, and technology, humans today are still very similar to humans of hundreds (and thousands) of years ago.
When I arrived at the end of the document, the thing that most stood out to me was the deep courage and powerful confidence of these men. (The last paragraph in particular really filled me with a sense of awe of these citizen’s convictions, and their willingness to very overtly stand for up what they believed. I don’t think I have that level of courage or confidence within me…) Regardless of one’s political views, I think the actions of these men serve as a real inspiration for what truly world-altering activity is possible when people are willing to do what they feel in their hearts is just – even if it’s incredibly controversial at the time. Incredible.
I was pleasantly surprised at how much I actually enjoyed reading the Declaration of Independence; this task allowed me to begin shifting the concept of history beyond mere lists of names and dates, and to see the field more as a domain of human stories – indeed, as an arena that contains the stories of entire societies. When I started reading the text, I had no idea I would get so much out of it – and I’m very glad that I took the 15 minutes to do a ‘required-reading’ type of task. I definitely encourage people who have never read the document before to set aside a mere quarter of an hour, and really read the text. Read it to understand it, to process and digest it, not simply to finish it. If you choose to accept this ‘assignment’, I’d love to know what you think.
P.S. Though I have fulfilled my ‘obligation’ to this task, I am going to complete the other option I originally included for list item #4, and read the U.S. Constitution as well. I suspect I will get additional learnings and insights out of that document, too.
It’s always good to read what’s part of your history, to have a better grasp of the past and how far we’ve come. But it’s also important to put the document back in context and realize that in the statement “all men are created equal”, men actually meant “rich white males”. Similar wording was used for the French declaration of human rights, which was written a couple of years later. But it did include a statement about men being equal no matter their social status. It took until 1946 for the declaration to be amended and make it official that women had equal rights to men. And let’s not talk about color and how much longer it took to acknowledge equal rights. Studying the evolution of a government is quite fascinating.
The US has had a similar history with respect to equal rights for women, people of color – and most recently GLBT individuals. I wonder if oppression will always exist and persist, or if one day people will “get the joke” and realize that equality is such a better way to live…?