Don’t Know Much About History

This question of history is one I’ve been puzzling over for the past few months. It is more than an academic question for me. In fact, it turns out to be both personal and practical. Who am I, after all? What are my roots? Where are my loyalties? To whom and to what are my duties? For the less peripatetic, perhaps these questions are easily answered. Indeed, probably there is something pathetically lost about asking them at all. But I cannot help asking, because I possess, as yet, no clear answer.

My husband and children will soon officially possess both American and Italian citizenship. They will owe a sobering civic duty not to one country, but to two. These duties exist separately, each without regard for the other. One can only hope that the two duties never conflict, and responsibly take on the moral challenge if they do.

Next year sometime, when we find that little farm that Axa talks about every day, we will be long-term residents in different country, to which we have no national ties. And we are no pining exiles. This is the life we’ve chosen. We love it, and must admit that we prefer it. To all other known alternatives, including residence in our native country.

Italian citizenship also brings with it entry into the European Union, an entity that politically, socially, economically, becomes larger and more concrete with every passing year. Here, it is a clearly felt community with roots in a shared (if conflicted) history and world-view.

We, however, are left strangely conflicted, not only for ourselves but for our children. What do we teach them about who they are? If history is the framework upon which we must build, from whose perspective should it come?

Initially, we presumed that we would take an eclectic approach — a little from here, a little from there. Now from an American perspective, now from an Arab one, next from a Chinese point of view. We wanted them to feel, like Aristotle, that they were citizens of the world.

This is all well and good, and a little of it is wholesome. But an entire world-view composed of it becomes fragmented, superficial, or both. Are we to become a sort of Betty Crocker; such a perfect composite that we have lost the charm of being individual and human, with roots and heritage, and an irreplaceable place we belong and can build on? We can read about and understand the Arabs and the Chinese without pretending that we are Arab and Chinese.

Alternatively, we might start, logically, with our country of nativity. It has shaped many of our thoughts and ideas. We feel considerable allegiance to it, as to an alma mater. But we feel incomplete ascribing our deepest heredities to a place whose beginning for us is so recent and so traceable. We want to look backward into forgotten memories; ancient villages, fairy-tales, battles, runes, broken pottery. Somehow, we want to find ourselves there: melt into the countryside of a place that feels inexplicably, unbelievably familiar.

Again, there is Italian history, since that’s our other half. We run into problems there again. It became a united country in 1861, not so long ago. Last time that happened was the Roman Empire. In between, it was an unaffiliated group of petty kingdoms and city states, not even really yet a “geographical expression.” Italian nationalism is a fairly recent invention. More deep-rooted are the ancient ties to one’s village. We didn’t make it back to Lagnasco, and we’ve never even been to Sicily. We have no particular historical ties to the village where we live.

We might take another logical course by teaching them French history, since that’s where we will be living, and what they would learn if we sent them to school. But we’re not French, not even by blood (with a few possible exceptions), and after all we’re teaching them at home partly to avoid just doing it the way it’s done by everyone around.

We have a majority of ancestors from the British Isles, so we might do something with that history. Being an island, they have a history more coherent and self-contained than most. And much of what we know as American culture and mores was gifted to us from our British ancestors.

In the end, the jury is still out on which history books we’ll end up reading (not text books, of course!). We’ll probably follow the classical model of claiming the great Classical civilisations as our own, and then narrowing to European and British history, with the United States added in when it appears, complementing without eclipsing (are we Americans capable of that?). Religious history adds in the near East and early Americas. And we’ll be like Marco Polo and read up on the Chinese and the Arabs and the rest of the world too.

What do you think?