Historically speaking, we’re pretty clueless

Here’s a little secret about history: We’re not very good at it.
Oh, there are exceptions, I’m sure, but by and large the average American doesn’t put a whole lot of thought into what took place before his or her arrival on the planet. That’s neither a criticism nor an indictment, just a fact.
And usually, age plays a significant role — the younger the people, the less history is apt to mean to them. That’s somewhat understandable, seeing as how they don’t have as many personal events from which to draw comparisons between yesterday and today.
Of course, that lack of knowledge isn’t as big an educational hindrance as it once was, thanks to the advent of the Internet. Instead of having to pour over dusty volumes of the written word for hours at the library, hoping to gain enough insight to pass the next exam before everything leaks back out of our heads, we now have everything right at our fingertips. And we can customize our search down to the most minute detail.

Nevertheless, we, as a whole, remain basically uninvolved with history.
That’s sad, seeing as how studying the past can often give us an idea of what may lie ahead. Admittedly, it’s not an exact science, but man, as a functioning and fallible being, really hasn’t evolved behaviorally as much as some social groups would like us to believe.
Complete equality between the sexes on an emotional scale? Never going to happen, simply because men and women are guided by different stimuli. Some of that is due to surroundings, but much of the disparity is merely inherent within each sex.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t foster a better understanding of one another, or between other groups that seemingly don’t have a great deal in common. As I pointed out to my son many years ago while he was learning about 19th-century America, many of the happenings he was reading about sounded at least vaguely familiar because man was repeating a number of them 200 years later.
And certain parts of history should never be forgotten, nor should they be revised to make various segments of society feel better about themselves. What happened happened, for better or worse, and the most we can hope for is to develop a clearer understanding of why something may have occurred and then try hard not to repeat those acts deemed repugnant.
Why the lecture on history? It was prompted by a recent sports story I read. It appeared on the online versions of several eastern newspapers because it involved a young Baltimore Orioles minor leaguer named Josh Hart.
Perhaps you saw it, too; if not, here is a brief rundown. Hart, the 37th pick in last year’s amateur draft, was recently introduced to baseball Hall of Famer Frank Robinson by Orioles manager Buck Showalter while visiting the team’s training camp. Showalter asked the 19-year-old Hart if he knew who Robinson was, and the youngster said he didn’t.
Showalter, whose father was a high school principal, then told Hart to do some research, write a one-page paper on Robinson and return it to the manager the next day — in person, not via email. To his credit, Hart did as he was instructed without balking and later told an Internet sports site he learned a lot about Robinson.
And Hart was properly respectful of Showalter, who some may believe overstepped the boundaries of a baseball manager.
“He takes his job as strictly business, and I respect that,” Hart said to, referring to Showalter. “Whatever he says, it’s done, and that’s a big plus. You’ve got to show him respect all the way.”
So kudos to Hart for being an upright guy. The question is, how much should we have expected a 19-year-old kid to know about someone who retired roughly 40 years ago?
Hart did say he knew Robinson was a Hall of Famer, which is commendable. As an African-American player, though, Hart probably should have been more aware of something else: that Robinson was the first black manager in major-league history, an appointment that obviously opened new leadership doors for minorities within the sport.
This reminds me of when Jackie Robinson’s No. 42 got retired by baseball on the 50th anniversary of his ascension to the majors. I remember reading back in 1997 about some then-active minority players claiming to not understand why 42 was receiving such special treatment, a sad commentary indeed.
Being able to rattle off career stats is impressive, but numbers alone don’t always give full representation of a person’s influence within his field. And I’m sorry, but there is no excuse for being completely unaware of iconic figures.
I’m reminded of a story a friend once told me. My buddy had been giving a younger co-worker a hard time about not knowing who R&B singer Lou Rawls was and soon rattled him enough to where he replied: “Well, I may not know who Lou Rawls is, but I’ll bet you don’t know who Bill Monroe is.”
Without missing a beat, my friend replied, “He’s a bluegrass guitarist,” a response that sent the young guy’s chin slamming to his desk. My pal quickly added that while he couldn’t name any songs for which Monroe was famous, he was aware of the man himself because he was legendary in his particular musical genre.
And that’s the point here — we should know about the movers and shakers who came before, especially when they’ve earned a reputation in the same profession where we practice our own trade. That doesn’t necessarily mean a robotic recitation of statistics or accomplishments, just an awareness of why they were important.
Had Buck Showalter asked Josh Hart about Mark Belanger or Tom Phoebus or Andy Etchebarren — all former teammates of Frank Robinson’s — Hart could have been excused for not knowing anything. As I said, he at least associated Robinson with the Hall of Fame, but how many guys his age — or older — wouldn’t have known even that much?
I applaud Buck Showalter for making Hart do some studying and learn more about perhaps the greatest Oriole of them all. There was only one thing wrong with Showalter’s teaching moment.
It was short by a few million students.