Peter John McLean

The Best History Lesson I Ever Got (Personal History)

When I was twelve or thirteen years old I went to a summer camp called Joseph Baldwin Academy and took a class that centered around King Arthur. I’ve always been really interested in classic literature, dead languages, and mythology so it seemed just about perfect. And as it turned out, it was.

The professor was in the top five coolest people I have ever met, a true generalist who could interrelate various topics to give you an actually comprehensive view of a subject: it would start with some typical history, and then maybe a little philosophy – quick, let’s interject some economics so you can understand the kinds of pressures that these people lived under – okay, now you see how that affected their philosophical and moral dialogue, and now let’s go back to the history until lunch. This, as I have since learned, is the only real way to learn anything.

I remember specifically the first day of the class, when he explained that to understand King Arthur you needed an understanding of the rise and fall of Rome. He then continued by detailing the entire history of Rome in about seven hours and making it incredibly interesting. I’ve since read plenty of classical history books and I still haven’t found a more concise and engaging story of Rome then his oral history.

What Made it So Great

I kind of dismissed the value of that class for a few years. I mean, I appreciated what I learned, but I failed to realize the deeper and more universal bits of wisdom that I had gleaned.

The world is always interconnected, nothing happens in a vacuum.

You can’t learn a subject – no matter what subject – without at some point engaging in other subjects. And if you are smart about it, you will take all of the subjects together and juggle them in your head until they start to connect in various ways. Economics is useless without an understanding of marketing, anthropology, sociology, and a host of other subjects (yeah yeah, statistics is somewhere in there).

This is partly why I read a lot of books simultaneously. It is also why I write out my thoughts on a subject while I read it. One of the things I learned in his class was the value of having objective notes on the left hand side of a page and then responses to it on the right hand side. If you haven’t formulated a response to something then you haven’t really learned it yet. Until it begins to affect your existing paradigm it’s just useless data floating around somewhere near your brain.

The ultimate value of this lesson was mostly passive, however. My active learning hasn’t changed a whole lot, though like I mentioned above, I try to remember to write out my reactions to new ideas to see how they relate to what I already know. More than anything, however, this lesson taught me that everything I ever learn is valuable.

It opened my eyes to life in general and helped me realize that whether I’m traveling the world or stuck in the most boring town in the world, there are experiences there that will provide me with value and help me to understand my own world better. Every day you have the opportunity to learn new things and then relate them to what you already know. No matter what you read, whether its a dry historical account of agrarian economics or Twilight, will make you a better person. Doing this (and being aware that you are doing it) makes it easy to start becoming a generalist and understand and relate to the world better.