Daniel Boorstin is my favorite historian. He has written widely and well on some of the key players, events, and influences on both world and American history.
Perhaps my favorite piece of his work, though, is an article he wrote discussing the role of the historian called, “The Historian: ‘A Wrestler with the Angel.'” He points out that the greatest challenge for the historian is to discover the things that TRULY move history. He says:
…the correct description of history lies in those things that influence the everyday, practical decisions that people make. But it can be hard to find, because often those things are not remembered and preserved over time. Pop culture, anyone?
“Historians can rediscover the past only by the relics it has left for the present. They try to convince us that the relics they have examined and interpreted in their narrative are a reliable sample of the experience people really had. But how reliable are the remains of the past as clues to what was really there?”
Boorstin points out that it is easy to find, say, massive tomes on Puritan theology. However, he critiques the historians who study these books to find history, when it is likely that few Americans ever read or even knew about these books. By contrast, millions of American children grew up studying the New England primer and the “theology” of its religious sayings and perspectives. However, very few of these primers still exist because they were made of cheap materials, and few people saw profit in preserving them. After all, there were so many!
In other words, Boorstin is saying that the correct description of history lies in those things that influence the everyday, practical decisions that people make. But it can be hard to find, because often those things are not remembered and preserved over time. Pop culture, anyone?
That makes understanding the stuff that influences us valuable, because it is a key insight into our true historical development. So what is today’s New England Primer? It took me a while, but I think I may have found it.
It is a television show that has run for 38 seasons and going strong, with over 4,160 episodes. It has been shown in 12o countries, and been re-made into 30 international versions. It has received 109 Emmy nominations. Over 75 million Americans have seen it. That number jumps even higher when you count its viewship overseas. It is one of a very short list of shows that has been watched by both kids and their parents (not counting shows on rerun). The show, of course, is Sesame Street.
Here’s the question; What does a show like Sesame Street tell us about ourselves, and how does it influence our spiritual outlook (for both believer and non-believer!)? That’s what I hope to explore in my next post.