IDEA #71. Go to a library and read from cover to cover a magazine about history (past or current) or archaeology. Old copies of the now-defunct American Heritage would be a natural choice, but there are plenty of current magazines about specific aspects of history—wars, ancient civilizations—that are pretty easy to find.
To whatever degree the past creates the present, a knowledge of the subtleties of history (as opposed to the collection of facts that often passes for history instruction in school) can be helpful in understanding how governments and societies make decisions, or at least how they can arrive at various predicaments. In history the persistence of certain issues and problems is known as continuity, and anyone who pushes their own study of history past the superficial level soon discovers that the problems of socioeconomics, ethnicity, foreign policy, religious conflict, and taxation that vex the world today also vexed the world a century or a millennium (or three) ago.
Magazines of history (as well as documentary programming on television, it must be added, although these are not the focus here for reasons that will appear below) provide multiple windows into small and specific aspects of history—a single person, place, or event, or a specific historical issue or trend. As these magazines are intended to entertain as well as to inform, the writing tends to be a good deal livelier than textbook prose and the overall coverage richer in terms of the inclusion of quotations and, above all, visual material. The best of the history magazines—and the classic American Heritage is the grand-daddy of the genre—solicit articles from the best writers of history and biography, and careful attention to design means that everything about the magazines is attractive and of high quality—so high as to make one wonder whether textbooks need be a dull as they usually are. Smithsonian is a fine example of such a publication.
The argument for going through an entire issue is that the activity will provide first and foremost an idea of the rich menu of material that such periodicals offer and secondly an increased probability of the young reader finding something of real interest; in addition, even the advertisements in such magazines can be fun, offering books, objects, and experiences that may be a bit out of the ordinary.
A couple of hours in front of The History Channel might have some of the same effect as reading a whole magazine, but to be blunt the quality can be uneven and sometimes younger viewers can find themselves watching an infomercial or a program that is distinctly pseudoscientific (aliens and UFOs make regular appearances on several “history” channels) without knowing it. We approve of the concept of the channel but believe it should be watched in at least loosely supervised doses.
Another point in favor of history magazines is that they last in physical form nearly forever, and, along with back issues of those being currently published, there are a number of bygone periodicals with a historical focus—Horizon chief among these—that are worthy of attention even forty years after their first appearance. Horizon, like American Heritage, first appeared in hardbound editions with superlative production values and excellent writing.