What Do You Think They Know?

If you have seen the ancestry-tracing American television series Who Do You Think You Are? you may appreciate what follows. Last night, we watched a recently produced episode. And we saw this again.

Occasionally the American featured celebrity tracing his/her family tree comes across as – much as I hate to say this – worryingly clueless about wider history and lives lived prior to the present. They may know “buzzwords.” Often you get the sense they saw something once in a script. Or they heard an historical adviser once say something on a set.

As in that episode, which featured a prominent actor tracing one grandparent’s line back to England and Scotland in the 1650s. The British Civil War being nothing more than a name for an American is kind of understandable. However, as an American having been through school and knowing so little about “indentured servitude” – both for prisoners/criminals as well as by choice (you couldn’t buy an airline ticket on a credit card to fly from London to New York in 1700) – as a means of transport to the American colonies is shocking particularly when that ignorance goes on national television and impacts a much discussed wider issue: he compared it to slavery.

While indenture was not something any of us probably would want to do, it was NOT slavery – as the actual historian talking to him gently pointed out. The actor later opined as well that “22 year olds” had hard lives 400 years ago compared to that of his son’s today; it was as if he was having some sort of an epiphany. He said he will also now draw strength from that ancestor’s struggles (a personal link was required for that?), and above all he decried how “no one” writes about ordinary people like his ancestor.

On that last point especially, please get me a brick and let me smash myself repeatedly over the head with it! Good grief, libraries and Amazon are FULL of books about “ordinary lives” lived in the past! They are not tough to find!

One does not have to go back to 1700 to find “tough lives” either. The average US life expectancy in 1918 was… age 39. How many of us don’t hit “adulthood” nowadays until at least age 40?

Speaking of 1918, in a separate episode, a year or two ago, we watched what I believed then had to be the most ignorant prominent woman actor I believe had ever seen featured on the show. I’m still scarred by it because it was horrifying viewing. It was truly disturbing how little she appeared to know, and particularly did not appear to know, about America’s past.

She voiced anger and moral upsetment at learning of an ancestor’s job a century ago: he worked briefly for the US government during World War I in its propaganda/censorship office, and he also participated in “keeping an eye on” foreign-born German-Americans. It was as if she was learning about all of that wider history for the first time; I would have been surprised had she previously been able off the top of her head to have pinpointed US participation in the war accurately at starting in 1917. She seemed to have had scant wider historical knowledge, so therefore lacked the ability to appreciate the broader context of her ancestor’s life as lived in those times. It was like watching a seven year old emoting: he was just a bad man. Almost every time she opened her mouth over the hour her painful vacuousness came tumbling out. Everything was “Oh, my, God, that was so terrible…” I can’t actually watch her acting now without thinking: Oh, my, God, you are actually acting, because you don’t know anything.

[Marker denoting the history of a building. Codicote, Hertfordshire, England. Photo by me, 2017.]

I discovered as an history instructor to take no knowledge among students for granted. In our world, we may regularly assume people actually KNOW certain things. However, be very careful in assuming anything when talking or debating with anyone.

I have long held this view: Don’t pretend to know more than you do. None of us know everything, and certainly not some specialist facts. Do not be afraid to ask questions and try to learn, and please don’t DRAW CONCLUSIONS about any “narrow” topics until you have done some deeper research.

Have a good weekend, wherever you are. 🙂