• July 2014

How I Came to Love History

By Barbara Mitchell
HR expert and co-author
The Essential HR Handbook and The Big Book of HR

As an undergraduate, I was a history major. I chose that field to study after taking a class from a wonderful professor who taught history in a way that made me feel like I was reading People magazine. That is, he told stories!

He didn’t focus on the dates of a battle, or the outcome of a summit meeting or a political situation. He shared the intimate details of the people who made history happen. As those characters came to life in his classroom, their actions, choices, and historic courage began to make sense to me.

My love for American history has lasted to this day.

My knowledge of the past keep not only makes me grateful to be an American—it helps me in my work as an HR and hiring expert. I am always aware that people’s past accomplishments, and mistakes, are likely to repeat themselves. And, I know from studying history that brave changes are always possible given the character and quality of the employee, manager, and boss.

Because of that, the lessons I’ve learned from studying history are highly relevant to my work every day.

Here are three experiences I’ve had in recent years, all of which continue to inspire me to study American history. I’ve posed a few questions to get you thinking. I hope they will encourage you to become a history buff, too.

1. How were you taught about history?

Several years ago I heard history author and novelist David McCullough speak at a conference. It was soon after he had written “1776,” and he stood on a stage before thousands of people and told stories about George Washington, Marquis de Laffayette, Benedict Arnold, Paul Revere, Dolley Madison, and so many more of the wonderful people who made our country what it is today.

And then he shared something that stuck with me. He said that our education system has things backwards: Teachers major in education, and then are assigned to teach whatever the school needs most. It might be math this year and history next year. He said, “Wouldn’t it be better to major in what you love and then learn how to teach that subject?”

As he was signing my copy of his book that day, I shared with him how my love of history had come from a professor telling stories about the people who shaped the events in our country. He smiled and said, “That’s the only way to engage people in history—tell stories!”

Obviously, that is what has made him such as successful writer! I sure wish more teachers taught history telling the stories—I think more kids would pay attention and maybe want to know more about our country and where we came from.

2. How have you experienced history as an adult?

This spring I spent a weekend in Williamsburg, VA, and enjoyed the restored area that is filled with people dressed as they would have been in the 18th century. They walk around telling stories or answering questions from tourists from all over the world.

This kind of experiential learning is another wonderful way to learn American history. And then there are museums like the Smithsonian American History Museum in Washington, DC, where you can see an amazing number of fascinating displays of interesting things, including some from more recent times like Fonzie’s leather jacket from the TV show called “Happy Days,” and Dorothy’s ruby slippers from “The Wizard of Oz” movie.

3. Which of the Founding Fathers’ homes have you visited?

Recently, I visited the Abraham Lincoln Museum in Springfield, IL. It is one of the best museums I have ever visited (and believe me, I’ve been to a lot!).

I learned so much from the displays and the movies they showed. If you are ever in the Midwest, I highly recommend it as a place to visit and to expand your understanding of where Lincoln came from and the significance of his life as an American.

If traveling to Illinois is too far of trek, know that nearly every state has historic homes you can visit with your family and friends—and your work colleagues, too. In fact, this is a great team-building exercise, for after the visit you’ll have much to discuss about the history of the founder, their life, challenges, their role as a leaders, and what it means to you as a worker, manager, and boss.

In DC, don’t miss George Washington’s Mount Vernon and Lincoln’s Cottage at Soldiers’ Home. Less than two hours away is James and Dolley Madison’s Montpelier, and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. And that’s just for starters. For more information, be sure to check out The Grateful American™ Foundation.

How Am I a Grateful American?

I love this question, for I am grateful for the Americans who came before me to make this a country that I love! As we approach the 4th of July and celebrate, I remember my mother who came to America from Scotland as a child and became an American citizen. She was a proud American and sincerely appreciated all this country offered to her. She particularly loved to sing “God Bless America, Land that I Love …” I am grateful for my father who served in the army in World War II, and my uncles who served in WWII and Korea. I love to travel to other countries and learn about other cultures, but am always glad to be home in the USA. I am a proud and Grateful American!


About Barbara Mitchell

Mitchell is a human resources and organization development consultant who is widely known in the areas of recruitment and retention. She has experience in both for-profit and nonprofit sectors and has consulted for a variety of organizations around the world.

She served in senior human-resources leadership positions with Marriott International and several technology firms in the Washington, DC, area before co-founding The Millennium Group International, which she sold in 2008.

Her books include The Essential HR Handbook, and The Big Book of HR. Click here to buy the book.

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