It is easy to manipulate history to serve our own political agendas. People do it all the time. But as I have argued before in this column, such an approach to the past only feeds our own narcissism and self-interest. It is diametrically opposed to one of the main reasons we study history in the first place.
By looking to the past for something that meets our needs, and by superimposing our present-day agendas on the past, we fail to understand the complexity of human behavior as it manifested itself through time. History has the potential to educate us (literally in the Latin, "to lead outward"). Good historical thinking requires us to understand lost worlds and to empathize with people who are different from us. Palin knew what she was looking for the moment she entered the Old North Church. As a result, she failed to be educated by the experience.
Hopefully Palin's visit to Boston, and her misinterpretation of Paul Revere's ride, will force Americans to dig deeper into our revolutionary-era past. If the blogosphere is any indication, the digging has already begun. For those interested in learning more, I would start with David Hackett Fischer's outstanding book, Paul Revere's Ride.
But as we jump in our cars this summer to explore America's historical treasures, or as we hunker down in our easy chair with a glass of iced tea to enjoy the latest book about our favorite era in the past, let's remember that history has the potential to teach us some of the basic skills necessary to live in a civil society—empathy, understanding, and humility.