This question is posed by British scholar Beverly Southgate as the title of his book exploring the status of history in contemporary culture.1 Southgate begins his analysis by noting a paradox; while the value of history has been questioned for over a century by progressive and postmodernist philosophers, history seems to be more popular than ever with the public.
As I write these words, David McCullough's biography of John Adams tops both the New York Times and Amazon.com bestseller lists. History has its own television channel to which countless Americans are addicted, and all five Academy Award nominations for a recent year went to films based on historical events. Obviously, the popular interest in history reflects a desire to know more about ourselves which is well and good, but does history possess sufficient value to warrant an extensive formal program of history instruction in the schools?
"Probably not" was the view of progressive educators whose philosophy gained ascendancy at about the time that compulsory public education was being adopted in Western societies. Academic subjects such as history and algebra were acceptable, they felt, for the privileged few who would go on to college and the professions, but the vast majority of students would be better served by training in more practical skills suitable to the workplaces of the Industrial Revolution. Critical of memorization and rote learning, progressives still tend to favor "learning by doing" over the acquisition of academic knowledge. Although the progressive philosophy held sway in schools of education (if not in actual teaching practice) for most of the twentieth century, it is on the defensive in the present climate of education reform that views past educational practices as inadequate and seeks high academic standards for all students.
"Probably not" might also be the response of postmodernist scholars who correctly observe that real objectivity is unobtainable and that truth is ultimately unknowable.2 It is a waste of effort, they suggest, to study a subject such as history which bears only a tentative and subjective relation to reality, which, itself, does not exist because reality is a fiction that we have made up. With our exquisite modern awareness of the relativity of all things, we are rendered powerless to believe in the truth of anything.
Well, as Freud liked to say, "Theory is good, but it doesn't prevent things from existing."3 History did, in fact, happen, and without it we would be largely ignorant of the workings of the world and of the human creature. The people who are paying good money for McCullough's book certainly must believe that history - however imperfect - does exist, as do history teachers who suppose they are performing a useful service by exposing the next generation of American citizens to the accumulated knowledge of civilization. What, then, are the perceived uses of history that have managed to preserve it as a central feature of the American school curriculum despite the misgivings of its critics? Here is a brief overview.
History shows us what it means to be human.
Some of history's greatest historians have seen human self-awareness as the very essence of history. Arnold Toynbee said, "History is a search for light on the nature and destiny of man." R.G. Collingwood wrote, "History is for human self-knowledge...the only clue to what man can do is what man has done. The value of history, then, is that it teaches us what man has done and thus what man is." Who better than Alexander the Great to teach us that human nature encompasses the entire range from cruelty to benevolence?
Psychologist Bruno Bettleheim asserted that human self-knowledge is the most important role of education."Most of all, our schools ought to teach the true nature of man, teach about his troubles with himself, his inner turmoils and about his difficulties in living with others. They should teach the prevalence and the power of both man's social and asocial tendencies, and how the one can domesticate the other, without destroying his independence or self-love." These words of Bettleheim, Toynbee and Collingwood were cited in Mark M. Krug's instructive 1967 book on history and the social sciences in which Krug himself wrote, "A historian is interested in the past because he is interested in life. The true historian's interest in the past...answers a deeply felt need to assure the continuity of human life and discover its meaning, even if the goal is never fully realized."4
History improves judgment.
This is perhaps the most often-cited practical reason for studying history, and it was foremost in the mind of Thomas Jefferson when he wrote that schooling in America's new democracy should be "chiefly historical." He said, "the people...are the ultimate guardians of their own liberty. History by apprising them of the past will enable them to judge of the future. It will avail them of the experience of other times and other nations; it will qualify them as judges of the actions and designs of men."5 A century later Woodrow Wilson agreed that history endows us with "the invaluable mental power which we call judgment."6 Now, some two centuries hence, Diane Ravich, a contemporary education policy analyst, affirms the continuing relevance of Jefferson's view, "History doesn't tell us the answers to our questions, but it helps to inform us so that we might make better decisions in the future."7
How are we to understand present realities? On what basis shall we make decisions about the future? Shall we act blindly out of passion and ignorance, or shall we attempt to act rationally based on knowledge? If the choice is knowledge, there is only one place to find it. "The future is an abstraction, the 'present' but a fleeting moment, all else history."8 The great philosopher of education, John Dewey, wrote, "...the achievements of the past provide the only means at command for understanding the present."9
In this age of the World Wide Web, globalism and international terrorism, knowledge of the larger world is seen as increasingly important. Mark M. Krug reasonably noted that, "some basic knowledge about the history of China is essential for an understanding of the present foreign policy of mainland China." While such background knowledge cannot predict future events (Hitler's astonishing repeat of Napoleon's Russian debacle notwithstanding), it can, according to Krug, provide helpful insights: "The knowledge of how men acted in the past, how they have striven to order the life of their respective societies, and how they have striven to overcome diversity, may not always suggest ingenious solutions to present crises, but it undoubtedly makes the task easier by providing a background and a body of past experience. History is indeed an inexhaustible source of examples and modes of life and 'styles of life,' and as such, and to that extent, it is a school of wisdom."10
According to Peter N. Stearns the wisdom available from history is useful not only for understanding great public issues; it also has more personal applications:
"...data from the past must serve as our most vital evidence in the unavoidable quest to figure out why our complex species behaves as it does in societal settings...and people need to have some sense of how societies function simply to run their own lives."11
"Not to know what happened before one was born is always to remain a child." -Cicero
The use of historical examples is ancient and no doubt predates written language. We can imagine cave dwellers sitting around the evening campfire sharing stories of admired ancestors worthy of emulation. Neitzche said people need models, and historical examples are especially powerful models because they actually existed. Joan of Arc demonstrates the power of individual belief and action. Galileo symbolizes the fight against authority for freedom of thought. Thomas Becket and Thomas More represent integrity in the face of deadly intimidation. Horatio Nelson exemplifies qualities of courage and duty. Hitler personifies evil. While it is not the province of American educators to tell students what their values should be, students can - by judging the actions of historical figures to be admirable or malevolent - advance the construction of their own moral belief systems.
As we know, humans are pattern makers. While many philosophers of history have believed that history is revealed only through its unique events, others have been unable to resist the urge to ascribe pattern to history. Two of the more useful of these patterns were developed by Georg Friedrich Hegel and Oswald Spengler, both of whom saw history as a dynamic process of change. Hegel's famous dialectic proposes that history inexorably moves toward greater freedom through a process of conflict between opposite ideas, such as capitalism versus communism (Marx's favorite). This conflict results in a synthesis combining the best elements of the two original ideas (welfare state capitalism perhaps). The synthesis will, over time, generate its opposite, and the historical pattern is repeated. Spengler developed the organic view that historical cultures, like plants and animals, follow a process of growth, flowering and decline. Certainly, history shows us that individuals and empires may rise, but eventually they will fall.
History makes us better thinkers.
Professor and education theorist E.D. Hirsch, Jr. reports that the cumulative weight of research now supports the view that a "broad grounding in specific facts and information" of the kind supplied by history, science and other academic subjects promotes the development of general thinking skills. He writes, "There is a great deal of evidence, indeed a consensus in cognitive psychology, that people who are able to think independently about unfamiliar problems and who are broad-gauged problem solvers, critical thinkers, and lifelong learners are, without exception, well-informed people."12
This common-sense view is supported by a report from the National Research Council citing studies on the reasoning abilities of experts. Such research is important, says the report, "because it provides insights into the nature of thinking and problem solving." The NRC report states, "It is not simply general abilities, such as memory or intelligence, nor the use of general strategies that differentiate experts from novices. Instead, experts have acquired extensive knowledge that affects what they notice and how they organize, represent, and interpret information in their environments. This, in turn, affects their abilities to remember, reason, and solve problems."13
Many historians and educators share a belief that expert knowledge possessed by historians includes not only factual information, but also the habit of critically analyzing evidence. In their workbook, The Methods and Skills of History, college professors Conal Furay and Michael J. Salevouris provide students with experience in analyzing and interpreting historical information. The authors claim that careful historical study teaches analytical and communications skills that "are highly usable in other academic pursuits - and in almost any career you choose."14
History supports common cultural understanding and dialogue.
Jefferson's hope that historical knowledge gained in school would improve the decision-making capacity of free citizens in a democracy supposes that all citizens would be similarly informed and share a common basis for evaluating and debating the issues of the day. Robert J. Marzano terms this the "heritage model of schooling, which holds that it is the duty of the education community to help society maintain a common culture by passing on specific information to students."15 A Nation at Risk, the 1983 report by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, put the matter this way: "A high level of shared education is essential to a free, democratic society and to the fostering of a common culture, especially in a country that prides itself on pluralism and individual freedom."16 E.D. Hirsch, Jr. and his colleagues made an attempt to identify such shared knowledge in their 1993 Dictionary of Cultural Literacy.
Clearly, literacy depends not only on the coding and decoding skills of writing and reading, but equally on the possession of sufficient shared knowledge to give words and ideas meaning. According to Hirsch, "A citizenry cannot read and understand newspapers, much less participate effectively in a modern economy, without sharing the common intellectual capital that makes understanding and communication possible."17 These thoughts echo the words of eminent historian Jaques Barzun who wrote, "The need for a body of common knowledge and common reference does not disappear when a society is largely pluralistic, as ours has become. On the contrary, it grows more necessary so that people of different origins and occupation may quickly find common ground and, as we say, speak a common language...it also ensures a kind of mutual confidence and good will. One is not addressing an alien, blank as a stone wall, but a responsive creature whose mind is filled with the same images, memories, and vocabulary as oneself."18
A foreign-born business executive who wrote to studentsfriend.com described her need for common cultural understanding in a personal and compelling way. To read her message, click here.
History satisfies a need for identity.
Closely associated with the idea of shared cultural understanding is the concept of identity. Questions of identify are a central concern of psychology which has found that loss of identity results in loss of significance; without identity there is little meaning and purpose to life. Beverly Southgate argues that history - the memories of things past - is of "supreme importance" in maintaining a sense of identity. In this context Southgate quotes a character from a Saul Bellow novel who says, "Everyone needs his memories. They keep the wolf of insignificance from the door."19
In 1931, historian Carl Becker said that "Everyman...reaches out into the distant country of the past" to inform his present and his future. "Without this historical knowledge, this memory of things said and done, his today would be aimless and his tomorrow without significance."20 Southgate says the need for identity applies to nations as well as to individuals; cultural identity contributes to meaning, purpose and cohesion in society. Furay and Salevouris think of history as "society's collective memory. Without that collective memory," they say, "society would be as rootless and adrift as an individual with amnesia." They quote philosopher George Santayana who wrote, "A country without a memory is a country of madmen."21
More uses of history
In The Methods and Skills of History, Furay and Salevouris identify two additional uses of history. By exposing us to the "foreign country of the past" (and to actual foreign cultures of today), history can help us develop tolerance and open-mindedness and "perhaps, rid ourselves of some of our inherent cultural provincialism." Furay and Salevouris also note that "Historical knowledge is extremely valuable in the pursuit of other disciplines - literature, art, religion, political science, sociology, and economics."22
Finally, history gives pleasure.
This is why history is popular with the public and why many of us find ourselves toiling in the fields of history education. Part of the joy comes from visiting foreign mental landscapes, part from discovering new things about ourselves and a big part is simply the love of a good story. For those of us with an historical turn of mind, history supplies an endless source of fascination. Unfortunately, for many people, this fascination is not manifested until after high school - after the acquisition of greater experience and interest in the larger world. Teenagers are rightly focused on learning about matters close at hand, such as their emerging sexuality and how they will fit into the adult world. Still, students are only with us during their youths, so teachers must do their best to lay a solid foundation for that longer view while the opportunity exists.
History in school
The future, not the past, is the point of schooling; education is meant to assist both students and society to function effectively in the future. Learning about the past for its own sake is an interest or a hobby and not a proper subject for schooling. Voltaire said, "Life is too short, time to valuable, to spend it in telling what is useless." Nietzche said, "We want to serve history only to the extent that history serves life."23
We study the past in school not because students need to know a collection of old facts, but because history helps them understand how the world works and how human beings behave. Knowledge of the past is required for understanding present realities. When people share some common knowledge of history, they can discuss their understandings with one another.
Students familiar with history know their unique place in the stream of time; they have a sense of the trajectory of human development, where it may veer off course and how it might be kept on track. A democracy needs citizens with such judgment and wisdom; the past is the only place to find it
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