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The Value of History on Stamps

By John M. Hotchner

Sometimes I start these columns, and know precisely what I want to say. Other times like tonight, there is a dim bulb burning, and I know only that I am annoyed about something. So I begin, and we will see where the muse takes us.

Our starting point is an offhand remark that a friend made about a stamp subject; a significant person in American history who has been mostly ignored by historians, and mostly unknown to the public because he was not flashy or a self-promoter, and was content to be in the shadow of others as he worked. Yet, without him, it is unlikely that we would be the nation we are today.

His name does not matter for purposes of this column. What matters is the remark: "Why should he be on a stamp? I never heard of him!"

Why indeed? My view of the value of American stamps and the hobby of collecting them is tied up with my view of history. Who was it who said that those who forget history are condemned to repeat it? There is truth to that. But more to the point is the fact that a thorough understanding of the fabric of our society, the workings of our governmental institutions, the unspoken but very real pursuits of Americans across the spectrum, and the public policies that we embrace are and should be informed by an understanding of at least our national history, and preferably by an understanding of world history.

This is a basic tenet of our educational system, but it is a problem with education that we too often learn a set of facts for tests, and forget them too rapidly; having achieved little in the way of understanding, and less in the way of comprehension of how those facts — and often supposed facts — influence us today. It is my observation that the more "history" we have to jam into required basic survey courses — and there is 50 more years since I was in grade school — the less useful those courses are in providing a meaningful framework upon which we can build the understanding needed for good citizenship, including informed voting.

Thus, unless one becomes a history major at the university level, the best I hope for is that students experience the people of the past as living, breathing forces for good and evil, and develop a lifelong love of historical inquiry that can only be satisfied by a lifelong search for understanding of not only the facts — "What really happened?" — but the dynamics of history: an understanding of human motivations and how they drove individuals to do what they did (and equally important, how they drove persons to fail to do what they should have done).

And so I come back to stamp collecting. The panorama of any nation's history, and it is so for the United States, should be reflected in her stamps. I think of them as a resource for self-education. Clearly that is not what motivates a lot of stamp collectors. And that is OK. The appreciation of the beauty of the image, the pleasure of filling album spaces, the satisfaction of organizing a collection are all worthy goals. But I would hope that many collectors also see their stamp collection and the individual stamps with historical content as an opportunity to look beyond the image to see what is being honored and why.

Thus, the question that got my goat: "Why should he be on a stamp? I never heard of him." is precisely the wrong question. We should be asking, "What did this person do that got him (or her) on a stamp, and why did s/he do it, and what can I learn about my nation and myself by finding the answers to those questions?"

The importance of stamps is at least partially that they are a resource for helping us celebrate the best of what we are, but also a resource for helping us to understand ourselves and the context in which we live. To serve that purpose, they cannot just celebrate the familiar. They must present subjects that provoke and promote inquiry into unfamiliar territory. They are hardly the only resource that can do that. But they do have the virtue of being the equivalent of flash cards to guide our continuing education.

And it is incredibly easy to do that these days. Once upon a time, lacking our own library of historical references, we had to plan a trip to the local library, and then try to find useful texts. Today, you can punch Abraham Baldwin, or Sitting Bull, or Ralph Bunche into your Web browser, and up will come Web sites that will tell you a ton about these people, and where to go to find out more.

If you don't recognize a new stamp subject, use that as an imperative to learn something new. Even better, pick at random once a week a name or an event with which you are unfamiliar that is pictured on a U.S. stamp, and look it up. If you spend 15 minutes doing this once a week, at the end of five years and 260 unfamiliar subjects studied, I guarantee that you will be both addicted to history, and a lot smarter about the flow of history, and its meaning for us today.

Perhaps you can accomplish the same end by plucking unfamiliar subjects out of a history book by looking up unfamiliar names in newspaper articles or TV historical specials. Those methods have the benefit of identifying some things you will never see on a stamp, for stamps celebrate the heroes and persons of accomplishment who are seen as positives. They tend not to celebrate villains and failures, and unhappy events. Those are also worthy of study. But I submit that the content of U.S. stamps constitutes a terrific basic course in U.S. history, and is, for collectors, a convenient and easy place to begin.

Should you wish to comment on this editorial, or have questions or ideas you would like to have explored in a future column, please write to John Hotchner, VSC Contributor, P.O. Box 1125, Falls Church, VA 22041-0125, or email, putting "VSC" in the subject line, at jmhstamp@verizon.net

Do you use stamps as a springboard for learning more about the subjects on them? Join us in the message board and tell us about it.

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