An Interview with Dain Lee, the cool kid behind History Cool Kids Instagram accountI
f you aren’t following @HistoryCoolKids it’s time to upgrade the mix of food porn and beautiful places you can’t afford to go to and beautiful people you’ll probably never meet with some history. When you think of history class, you may be transported back to squirming uncomfortably in your high school desk chair listening to your history teacher droning through a powerpoint on the Industrial Revolution in perfect monotone. You can practically smell his coffee breath. Or maybe you are reminded of that 3,000-page textbook wreaking of wet dog and dirty socks littered with weird doodles and high school love notes (check one) you had to lug back and forth from home to class. Scrolling through History Cool Kids is nothing like that.
The account is a compilation of incredible stories, quotes, moments and pictures on every subject under the sun. Dain Lee eloquently sources and shares small nuggets such as your favorite celebrity’s college photo, the plights of the most prominent politicians and acts of heroism by everyday people. With his thought-provoking posts, Mr. Lee has indeed made an oft-hated school subject cool again. He says he’d still run the account even if it had no followers. At more than 400k and growing, it’s got considerably more than none though.
If Mr. Lee had been my history teacher I probably would have gotten an A+, or at least would have had more fun, and if HistoryCoolKids were the textbook, it might be the first of its kind to make the New York Times bestseller list.
The first time I scrolled through @historycoolkids I thought wow, I would love to grab a beer with this person and hear his opinions of the world. His pick for a sharing a beer was Jesus, but he was still kind enough to entertain our questions.
HistoryCoolKids’s Dain Lee schools on enjoying Instagram, Marie Kondoing his house and having a beer with Jesus Christ
McKenzie Millhousen: Where did the inspiration for the account come from?
Dain Lee: My interest in history stems from my dad who would talk constantly at the dinner table about interesting tidbits in history. At school, history was always my best subject and when I went to college I actually majored in it for about a year before switching to Economics. A couple years ago, I just started HistoryCoolKids for fun as a way to learn and pass the time. I guess the account resonated with a lot of people and I started to see it grow rapidly after a few months.
MM: Your content points to very specific moments, quotes, events in history. It must be a decent amount of work to research and present everything in the thoughtful way that you do. Why do it?
DL: I love learning. So even if I had no followers, it’s still beneficial for me as a person to research and learn. I think it makes you a more interesting person. There are so many fascinating human stories out there and it saddens me when people think history is boring and think it’s just dates and black and white photos of events that don’t really matter anymore.
MM: You have 415,000 followers, you gained 17,000 just this week, I’ve been watching. Amongst those, are some very prominent public figures. Did you ever think it would get this popular?
DL: No, not really. It didn’t happen overnight. It took three years of consistent posting.
MM: One of my favorite things about your account is that it goes over a wide range of subject matter—entertainment, science, sports, politics, etc. With so much out there how do you determine what is relevant in history?
DL: For me, history is just any event that occurred in the past. So I don’t really think too much about what is relevant. What I try to focus on is unearthing interesting stories that people may not be too familiar with. The whole goal is to show that history isn’t just dates and facts.
MM: If you could have a beer with anyone in history who would it be and why?
DL: That’s a tough question. There are so many people I would love to meet, but my top pick would have to go to Jesus. I’m not even religious, but it would be fascinating to just ask him questions about his life and follow him around for a day.
MM: What do you think the coolest moments in history are?
DL: When we study history, it’s always done by specific events or geography. However, historical events unfolded simultaneously all over the world, but we just don’t really have that perspective when we’re learning it in school. Our memory of historical events is often times very siloed. For example, when I learned that Socrates, Buddha and Confucius all lived around the same time, it kind of blew my mind. A merchant or traveler could have had the potential to meet all three men. Here’s another example: did you know Adolf Hitler, J.R.R. Tolkien and Anne Frank’s father, Otto Frank, were all soldiers who fought in the Battle of the Somme in 1916?
MM: What do you think the most important lessons from history are?
DL: Seems like the only absolute thing in history is that we never learn from it. Time and time again, we see empires rise and fall. The victors become rich and corrupted. In order to maintain power and control, people are repressed until the point they revolt and start a new leadership that only falls once again to the vicious cycle. History is constantly changing, but the stories aren’t really all that new. Human nature will always remain the same.
History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does tend to rhyme.
MM: Do you think history repeats itself?
DL: Not really. I think there are certain themes or elements that come up again and again, but I wouldn’t really use the word “repeat.” I believe there was a historian who said: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does tend to rhyme.” I agree with that.
MM: If you could live in any decade what would it be and why?
DL: I think we tend to romanticize certain eras because of what we learn about them from books, movies etc. I honestly wouldn’t want to live in any other era than the one I’m living in now. But if I had to choose, it would be fascinating to attend a gladiator match at the Colosseum in Rome. Imagine being able to see everything in color, taking in the smell, and witnessing the reactions of the crowds. The mock-sea battles held in the Colosseum and the flooding of the arena would also be amazing to see in person.
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Jonas Salk (1914 – 1995) decided not to patent his 1955 polio vaccine so that it would be affordable for millions of people who couldn't afford it. As a result, he lost out on an estimated 7 billion dollars. In an interview with Edward R. Murrow, Salk said: "There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?"
MM: What is your view on the present? Anything you are afraid of or particularly interested in right now?
DL: Social media and the mainstream media have amplified and injected a lot of fear and negativity into our daily lives and it’s easy to think that the world is slipping into chaos. However, I try my best to minimize my media consumption and focus on the positive aspects of living in the present. That’s why you’ll see my account is mostly focused on uplifting stories which I don’t see too much these days. Having said that, I am concerned about what we are doing to our environment. I was using the Kondo method to clean out my apartment the other day and I realized how much worthless stuff I’ve bought over the years that just end up in the trash. While I feel helpless in terms of turning things around, the least I can do is minimize my consumption and be aware of my own footprint. I am happy to see the younger generation getting involved and being more aware of our impact on the environment. That gives me hope.
MM: You probably get a lot of interesting feedback, anything really memorable that has stuck with you?
DL: One thing you learn quickly on social media is that people do get offended a lot even when you’re doing your best to not be controversial. However, for the most part, the feedback has been largely positive. People write a lot of encouraging messages and I’m always happy to see those.
MM: Thanks so much. If you could please fill out this chart and return it that would be great. You won’t be graded.