Thursday, December 17, 2009

Why Study History?


“I've never understood why history is taught grades 1-12, and then in my case, 2 more history classes were required for my college degree. I enjoy history class when it is done right, but only because its fun to sit around and talk about past events, debate stuff, etc. But I find it to be very impractical in comparison to the other 3 subjects within today's society. What can you do with a history degree? Teach history? Write history books? Work at a museum?”


Partly as a result of the difficult economic times, people are reevaluating which subjects students should study in school. Many suggest we should make more time for practical subjects like math and science which produce doctors and engineers, who in turn most directly add to things like GDP. I too have sometimes fallen for this line of thinking. But the more I think about it, the more I think history is one of the most valuable subjects a student should study in school. Let me lay out some reasons why:

1. History inspires

Learning about the life of Abraham Lincoln can inspire kids to aspire to a life in politics when they see how a man like him of modest circumstances could become President and change America. Learning history can also inspire a healthy sense of patriotism when kids learn about what has made America special historically, and the noble traditions of liberty and equality that form the basis for the country. This sort of pride gets people to enlist in the military, or as I mentioned earlier, go into politics. These are benefits you simply can’t get from studying chemistry or biology.

2. History provides practical wisdom

One of the most important things on people’s minds right now is economic policy, which is something science classes would have little to say about. A math class and an economics class might. The problem though, is that it’s often theoretical. You can create a mathematical model to predict the effects on the economy if inflation spikes up. You can even use past instances of inflation to inform the model. But a good history class can make the consequences of certain economic policies more real. For example, reading about German beggars burning money outside in the winter to keep warm during German hyperinflation in the 1920s is a gripping tale that most people will never forget. Even if you insist that other disciplines like economics could teach these lessons, the fact is they could not. In order to use mathematical models on historical data, economists need to know which data to trust. That usually means that a historian must look through government archives and primary sources to establish the veracity of different sources and data to provide accurate data to work on. And as I said, history can provide insights into how hyperinflation actually affected people in their every day lives, instead of just telling us that GDP went down.

3. History is vital for citizenship

In fact, it’s vital in a way that science and math are not. A firm grasp of American history is necessary to understand how government works. For example, in Supreme Court cases about affirmative action and busing, the 14th amendment will be used to make all sorts of claims. To better understand the 14th amendment and the constitution, it’s critical that people know about the civil war and reconstruction. The same is true on other controversial cases like abortion. During elections, politicians make all sorts of claims based on history. They accuse people who want increased engagement with hostile nations of being “appeasers” like Neville Chamberlain (just listen to a conservative talk show for a few days if you don’t believe me). Instead of just mindlessly accepting this version of history, it would be good if citizens spent some time learning about the conference at Munich and what really transpired, and whether Chamberlain talking to Hitler really caused world war two. Others on the left argue that Afghanistan is the new Vietnam. It would be good if citizens have studied the Vietnam War and understand the similarities and differences between the wars in the two countries. That way, citizens can engage meaningfully in the debate about foreign policy, which seems like a good thing. I don’t see how math and science class will help people engage better in the democratic process. There is no equation that will tell you whether we should appoint judges who believe in originalism or the living constitution.

4. History lays the foundation for justice

Most countries have some injustices in their past. In the US we have the shameful treatment of Native Americans, slavery, segregation, and Japanese internment among others. Studying history can show us how past actions harmed certain groups, and how we can potentially help. For years, Native Americans have been portrayed as witless primitives who beat drums all day who were lucky that white people came in and decided to civilize them. But when historians reexamined the era, they gave greater attention to the atrocities committed like the trail of tears, and the confinement of, and then neglect of Native Americans on reservations. Having learned the real history of Native Americans, there is more attention given to how to recognize past wrongs, and more support to provide for opportunity for today’s Native Americans. You don’t get this benefit in science or math classes.

That’s all great you might be saying to yourself, but what practical skills do I gain by studying history? Plenty it turns out:

1. Research skills

To write a research paper in a history class, you need to find a bunch of primary and secondary sources. Then you have to narrow down your source base as you narrow down the topic of the paper. Finally, you have to use your sources to create a coherent product. If you’re going to be a lawyer, journalist, consultant, or a member of many other professions, you’ll be doing this sort of thing in varying degrees. As a lawyer you have to research laws and statutes to write up memos for a judge laying out your case. The ability to gather and collect evidence is not something you will do much—if at all—in a math or science class.

2. Analytical skills

In order to do good history, you need to be able to look for bias in sources to find which ones are appropriate to use. When writing a paper about the American revolution for example, you’d have to decide whether to use British or American sources to write about the revolution, or whether you should use them together. British and American accounts might give different causes for the revolt and different reasons the British lost. As a historian you have to reconcile the accounts. To be a good historian, you need to be willing to question established wisdom. For example, reconstruction was viewed as a failure during the late 1800s and first part of the 1900s. But eventually historians critiqued the arguments made and looked for other sources on reconstruction to tell a different story.

3. Writing and communication skills

Writing a history paper requires, well, writing skills. Students learn to write coherently and succinctly, come up with an argument, and then persuade someone it’s true. This is a valuable skill in real life. Let’s say you’re a doctor researching a cure for cancer. You need a grant to actually do the research. You have to convince someone to fund your project. Learning to write persuasively will help you accomplish this goal.

4. The ability to work with complexity and uncertainty

In most math and science classes, there is an equation that solves the problem. That soon teaches you that there is a quick, mathematical way to solve every problem. But in the real world there is complexity and uncertainty in situations. How ought a judge interpret a certain law? What is the real reason x company’s profits are down this years when there are so many competing factors? History deals with complicated questions all the time. Did slavery cause the civil war? Did the authors of the 14th amendment intend to outlaw segregation?

So in sum, I actually think history, far from being a meaningless distraction, is one of the most important subjects a student can study. And it is right that we require students to study it all throughout school, and that we have people study it extensively in college. The problem today is not that people know too much history, but that they know too little.

1 comment:

  1. I just had this discussion with my dad the other day - why social sciences are really important in a school curriculum. Really insightful blog post!

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