Why Teach History?

A Website for James L. Smith

Why Teach History?
by James L. Smith

All professionals should be able to identify a higher purpose to what they are doing, a purpose that goes beyond simply making a living.

Attorneys should be motivated by a sense of justice. Scientists should see their research as a way to improve people’s lives. Law enforcement officers should feel a sense of duty to serve and protect.

History teachers should also sense a higher purpose to what they are doing, not just as teachers, but as
history teachers.

When trying to identify a higher purpose to teaching history, I believe teachers should follow two guiding principles:
  1. The reasons for teaching history should focus on the needs of all students.
  2. Students have a right and a responsibility to think for themselves. It is the not the job of the history teacher to tell students what to think, but to help them learn how to think.
In identifying a higher purpose for teaching history, teachers should make sure they are motivated by humane objectives. They should keep the needs of all students and the health of society in mind. Good teachers should be missionaries for the subjects they teach, and in the process of teaching history their mission should be defined in humane terms.

With these goals in mind I present my personal list of ten reason for teaching history. This is not a definitive list and teachers are encouraged to use the list only as a starting point for clarifying their own reasons for teaching history.

Ten Reasons to Teach History

1. History provides students an opportunity to develop basic academic skills (reading, writing, and analytical thinking).
In the “real” world we may rarely need to know the details of how George Washington persuaded the Senate to ratify Jay’s Treaty or how Andrew Jackson destroyed the Bank of the United States. However, we will always need to know how to read, write, and think. Regardless of what our students decide to do with their lives, developing basic academic skills is vital to their success.

2. History helps students better understand the world in which they live.
We live in a diverse and complex world, and all of us need to understand that world in order to survive. One of the best ways to understand our world is to understand its history, an understanding that is vital not only to our personal happiness, but also the health our society.

3. History helps students understand human beings and, in the process, understand themselves as individuals. In many ways history is a study of human nature and can help us identify human failures and successes.  Since all of us must live with both the vulgarity and the nobility of human existence, we should understand that studying people from the past is one of the best ways to prepare ourselves to live with other human beings, at both their best and their worst.

"In history you have a record of the infinite variety of human experience plainly set out for all to see, and in that record you can find for yourself and your country both examples and warnings: fine things to take as models, base things rotten through and through to avoid." – Livy

4. History helps students understand people who are different.
Learning to think historically requires that we learn to avoid presentism. That is, we learn to study the past by minimizing the biases of the present. To understand people from the eighteenth century we must be able to put ourselves in their world, knowing only what they knew. If we develop this skill successfully we will then be able to understand people from five hundred years ago or two thousand years ago. We will be able to understand people in modern times who live in different nations or grow up in different cultures.
 

5. History allows students to gain perspective and learn to see a bigger picture.
History allows us to leave the confines of our own environment and see ourselves as a product of thousands of years of history. As the Roman philosopher and statesman Cicero stated, “To be ignorant of what happened before you were born is to be forever a child.”

6. History can inspire students.
Any human being might eventually face a dark night of the soul. Most people, at one time or another, need a little inspiration, and what better place to look for inspiration than to dig into the past? History is full of heroic individuals who found something within themselves that helped them overcome tremendous obstacles. We therefore study history, in part, to learn about inspirational people and their triumphs. We can use history to guide us and help us find the strength and wisdom to deal with life’s hardships.

7. History can provide students with a reason for being — it can give meaning to their lives.
All of us need a reason for living, a higher purpose to our lives. Are we here primarily to help others or explore new frontiers? Are we here to create and bring beauty into the world? To what extent should we define our lives by our emotional and spiritual development? Is it enough to define our lives by hedonistic desires? All these questions have been dealt with by people who came before us and will help us in modern times find our own answers.

8. History can help students feel a sense of connection.
If we consider that an average life span is seventy-five years, it was only two lifetimes ago that it was 1864, and Abraham Lincoln was fighting the Civil War. Only three lifetimes ago it was 1789 and George Washington had just become president. History helps us understand how closely we are connected to the past.

9. History is entertaining and fun.
History is full of drama, suspense, mystery, romance, tragedy, and comedy. If we let the facts speak for themselves, students will likely find great entertainment in stories from the past.

10. History provides students time to wonder and dream — it gives them an opportunity to imagine a better future for themselves.
History leads us to a place where we better understand each other and the world we live in. This understanding can help us then imagine a better way to live and give us the ability to pursue our dreams while staying grounded in our knowledge of the past.

"To me, history ought to be a source of pleasure. It isn’t just part of our civic responsibility. To me, it’s an enlargement of the experience of being alive, just the way literature or art or music is." – David McCullough

© 2007, 2014 James L. Smith




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