Why is the study of history important?
With many of the provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act focusing on reading and math skills leading to a "teach to the test" mentality, history has been getting short shrift in schools these days. Already, in the past few decades, the study of history has been shuffled into the shelter of social studies making it now one of a myriad of social sciences studied in one small period each day. In my state, public school social studies classes often have upwards of 40 students/class which makes learning very difficult. The study of history does not seem to hold a place of importance any more.
This is sad to me because I see the study of history as very important in creating knowledgeable and engaged citizens for our nation. By teaching us to analyze the social, political, and economic threads of the past, the study of history gives us the skills to analyze those threads in the present.
History, if properly taught, is the most exciting of subjects. It should answer the question of "why we are where we are," and if done further back in time, "why they were where they were." As a few commentators have already stated, that analytical process encourages reasoning and will lead to the ability to discern "why we are where we are going."
The teaching of the subject has sadly been reduced in many instances to the recitation of dates and events. No wonder kids hate it. The way to keep them on the edge of their seats is to show them the conflicts people contended with in the past, and how they came to resolve them -- or if they resolved them. This leads to the appreciation of how little really changes, and insights into how people work -- maybe the names and places change, but the conflicts remain the same. A few years ago, there wasn't a teenager I'd known that hadn't seen "Saving Private Ryan." The reason is because not only did it show conflict, it embodied that timeworn but applicable phrase of "history coming alive," watching kids their own age from another generation, perhaps even their own great grandfathers, living through the experience of the Normandy Landings.
More and more kids get their history from the media, and not through school. Why is it reduced to a bunch of dates on a timeline, devoid of the conflict or human experience that historical figures lived? It's not entirely the lack of facts; it's more the lack of agreement of facts; although the term "politically correct" is thankfully fading, it still pervades peoples' ability to express opinion; no one wants to cause offense when its discovered that the facts I see aren't the ones you do. We don't teach the history of conflict, because we seek to destroy conflict among ourselves. Consider something never taught in high school history - here's an excerpt from Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address:
Fondly do we hope--fervently
do we pray--that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.
Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by
the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil
shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn by the lash
shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said
three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, "The
judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."
Mentioning "Lord" and "God" and "prayer" in a public school? Execration of slavery and denunciation of the South? Affirming the North shall draw blood from the South to punish it for its "peculiar institution?"
This may ruffle a few feathers, particularly if you're from Texas. That state, along with California, comprise the largest market for school textbooks in the country. And here we get to the crux of the problem -- If you're a publisher interested in maximizing history textbook sales, to whom do you tailor your contents? Which facts to you present, or more sadly and accurately, omit? To appeal to the majority, it must necessarily be devoid of conflict, so no one gets offended.
Throw the textbook out. Teachers should just pick primary sources and discuss with students. Who cares if you don't cover it all? That's not what's important; teaching kids to think is. If we've done our job correctly, whatever's missing they'll fill in on their own, if only out of a sense of curiosity. When students are no longer force-fed a bland puree of dates and time-lines devoid of conflict, their processes of analysis, reason, and argument will be sharpened. What better gifts to impart? We've got to get back to presenting arguments and debating issues, not only historical ones, but supremely importantly, current day ones. That alone is the most important reason for the correct study of history. At worst, we can at least re-learn to be able to agree to disagree.
The difficulty about studying history is that we may be able to get at the basic facts of what happened (it's more difficult than it may appear), but it is almost impossible to understand the motives of the various individuals involved in what happening; at best we can make an effort to understand them, but this always comes with a "point of view." For example, we teach the development of the Consitution, but we never have time to student the working of the Convention which are extremely interesting and shed a great deal of light on some of the decisions they made. Eg. I have students who think the Electoral College should be abolished; when I ask them what problem it was invented to solve, almost none of them know. Most of them think it was the great evil that kept Al Gore from becoming President in 2000. They know nothing about the other times it has been used in our history, what problems it may have saved/caused, etc.
This is not to say that we should not teach history, just to remind us that it is an extremely difficult task. I feel that we should be teaching the major concepts of American history rather than the multitude of facts that we expect students to memorize. And then what do we do about "World" history???
If we don't do something, we will wind up with the world of "1984" where the government (media, television, internet, whatever) tells people what the past was ... and infinitely malleable "story" that can be used to justify what is going on in the present. This is the greatest danger as I see it.
Perhaps others will have some comments on this ...
Ditto everything already said! I just don't understand how history has been so maligned over the past several decades. The idea that we need to cater to somehow cram all of this stuff under the heading "social studies" came from somewhere, and I'd like to know where. "History" deserves to be taught, and not just a history of all those other nations that are now perceived to be better than our own.
US History is important, as is western European, eastern Asian...history of the world is critical for everyone to understand what's going on in the world today. How can someone understand the mess in the Middle East if they don't understand Middle Eastern history? I took one of the best and most difficult courses in college - History of the Middle East - and considering that so many problems are still happening in that neck of the woods, everyone should have to have some understanding of how it's gotten to this point.
Even though I teach American Literature and British Literature, my students still get introductions to the historical happenings in every literary period we read. Otherwise, how are they going to understand what prompted someone like Jane Austen to write "Pride and Prejudice"? How on earth is "Huck Finn" going to make sense if we don't study 19th century American history?
Great topic, and sorry if I ranted too much on it! :)
Well I always tell my students at the beginning of the year, history is "our story" of our past, we must be able to interpret that and understand that so we move on in the future. We study history so we can understand the world around us, and make wise decisions based on what we have learned from the past. If the school system cut out social studies, how would our kids learn how to cooperate with other cultures, how would they learn how to understand cause and effect, one of the biggest themes in a history class. History is not about memorizing facts and knowing everything on a timeline, its about anaylzing people and societies, and intepreting the decisions that were made so that we can understand the big events of our time. We must learn from the past and understand the world so we can live in it properly!
The single most important aspect of studying history is that it suggests to humanity it is only through understanding the past that humanity has the chance to survive. Under the most dire of circumstances there are some people who believe that if we do not recognize our shortcomings, prejudices, ignorance and arrogance we will ultimately cease to exist. Hence, the single most important reason for all humans to study history. It can be argued that history in the United States has 'fallen out of favor' in the recent past to compensate other subjects. I cannot help but wonder the consequences. ( For anyone interested I created a topic in the American History teachers group that addresses this topic )
The study is history is important for many reasons, but I will offer two post-modern answers that are often overlooked. First, we must not take a person's understanding of history as a fact. All understanding of history is interpreted, that is to say, all history is from the perspective and understanding of the author. This means that all history is selective and usually from the perspective of those in power. Second, for this reason, we need to study history from as many perspectives as possible, especially from the perspective of those without power. When we do this, we will be able to use history to create a more humane society, or at least this is a hope.
In response to #7, I think the answer to making its importance more clear is to encourage interdisciplinary courses. We just re-introduced an American Studies class in our school, which is helping to show the connections that must be made to American history when studying American literature. However, more curriculum needs to be created to tie all the courses together. Teaching science should include how history has changed science. Teaching math could also easily incorporate history, to demonstrate to the students that all subjects are influenced by world events.
I definitely agree with the above post that the study of history enables us to analyze the present better. The study of history is also important because we learn from the mistakes of the past and hopefully learn to avoid those same mistakes made in the past. By studying our ancestors, we see the mistakes that were made and learn how to avoid those mistakes. By learning from the mistakes that have been made by others, we are able to avoid the same mistakes and make more progress in economics, government, technology, etc.
There's no way to understand where you can or should go unless you know where you've been. How could students ever completely "get" why the world around them is the way it is unless they're taught the steps it took to get here. I don't teach a single novel without a historical background; in fact, I rarely teach the kids anything about anything without a historical background. Even my football players know why we run the offense we run. Past is just as important and present.
Teaching history is very, very important! We must know history in order to understand the present and past. This is key! What frustrates me so much about the "younger" generation is that they hardly know ANYTHING about history and they do not keep up with current events, which to me, is a complete tragedy. I also teach literature and it is so important to know the historical context of what I'm teaching...the students need to know it, too.
If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always had.
I LOVE history--you can't teach literature without it, and vice versa. The literature tells the story of the history since most writing is an outcry of what is going on in the current events. History and literature are paramount to a well-rounded individual and an education that is relevant now and always.
Completely agree with all of these posts, but I must admit that I find myself "teaching" history as part of literature in terms of ensuring that students have a thorough understanding of the context of the novels and poems we examine. For example, A Tale of Two Cities gives an excellent opportunity to look at the French Revolution. So I must admit to having to sneak it in in my classes!
For me, there's no question of whether history should be taught. It must be taught. Think of all the novels that we've answered questions about: The Giver, Brave New World, Farenheit 451, etc. Without the knowledge of what came before us, we're susceptible to letting ourselves become just like the sheep, I mean people, in these books. History is life.
I am glad that others see history as important. How can we get the powers that be in education to see its importance and give enough time and resources to it in the classroom.
It both helps to develop thinking skills and gives meaningful material/knowledge with which to think.
I like posts 1 and 4 above.