I’ve heard the question since I became a history teacher, and I love to answer it. For students, the problem is that history doesn’t seem practical. The question that comes up is how many times in one’s life is the fact that Charles I was beheaded in 1649 going to become useful information? If one is involved in a trivial pursuit game, sure, but outside of that? Almost never. The struggle for students is where all of this information fits into their life. They spend time in a classroom learning the information, but after much classroom clock watching and learning the required facts, what is there to do with it? Without practical application, it is simply non-essential information and therefore relegated to the dark recesses of their mind, or simply ejected after the test…and sometimes before the test. “Why do I have to study this stuff?” is a common refrain in America’s classrooms.
Even adults, who one would think could see the importance of studying history, cannot seem to grasp its importance. Unless it pertains directly to their pocketbook, the history of the very nation in which they live (at least in the United States) seems, once again, relegated to the trash bin, or at least the “pay no mind” portion of their lives. I went to an even recently, and the question that came up was where did the phrase, “When in the course of human events” come from. Very few knew the answer. Do you? Without looking it up on the internet? The relevance of history seems to have no pull, no application, no practical need. In our modern world, we just don’t see it as necessary, unless we are buying a car and wish to see ITS history. We simply ask to “see the carfax”, a practical history of that piece of machinery in which we are about to invest many thousands of our hard earned dollars…then it becomes important. Therein, dear reader, lies the answer.
In our fast paced, practical, consumer driven society, the study of history and its lessons do not seem to have much of a place. Nevermind the fact that the studying of stock charts is really studying history, we just can’t seem to find practical application! Forget for a moment that looking at the historical trend of our business is applying history in a practical way…we just can’t seem to find a reason to learn the process of historical interpretation. Forgetting that the lessons that we as adults have learned in order to pass on to our children are simply using our own personal history to teach, we just don’t have time to understand historical trends. How could the study of history possibly be practical for our lives?
To my mind, the most important aspect of studying history lies in the following phrase. I cannot recall if I saw this someplace or made it up, but it goes like this:
“You don’t know where you’re going until you understand where you’ve been”
This, to me, is the importance of the study of history in a nutshell, and something that I tell my students on the first day of class. One of the most practical reasons that we study history is to learn to see patterns in history…historical trends. This applies to our daily life, our academic life, our financial life. We learn to see these trends by the study of historical periods and their interconnection. History does NOT happen in a vacuum. There are always forces acting upon it, whether it be great matters of state, or great matters in our daily life, there is always history and historical forces that have influenced what is about to occur. It behooves us as students and citizens to learn to study those patters so as to help us determine our path, to see further down the road. When one drives a car, one doesn’t simply watch the car directly in front of you for if you do, there will surely be an accident. The most important thing to do is to look a few cars ahead so that problems can be spotted and possibly avoided. So it is with the study of history. If properly studied and prepared, we might better be able to see what is ahead of us to make better decisions about the future. Does this mean to say that we will avoid all danger? Certainly not, but what it does suggest is that we may be better prepared for what lies ahead.
Let’s put it another way. Suppose one is driving and gets lost. How do we get “unlost”? The most logical course of action is to re-trace our steps until we get to the point that we recognize again. Used to be that one would simply pull into a gas station and ask the local attendant. I think that died with $2.00 a gallon gas! Re-tracing one’s steps is a practical application of history (“We don’t know where we’re going until we understand where we’ve been). Does this make sense? Think about it.
In our distant past, history was used for teaching morality, for studying heroic deeds by heroic people as a way to inspire future generations. History was used to tell the tale of a people, to keep their connection to the past so as not to lose the essence of a people. History was used to inspire a people to embrace their common heritage in order to unify them. Today, I fear that the study of history is simply a necessary evil in order to graduate, but seemingly without a practical use for the generation of today. This is a mistake as the very study of history may tell us more about ourselves than any economist ever could. History is NOT simply the study of names, dates, and facts so that one may win on Jeopardy, but rather it is the thoughts, feelings and events that shaped who we are today by those that came before us. The charge, then, is to make the study of history relevant in our classrooms and in our lives so that future generation may understand the importance of it and embrace it as we move toward our own future, with the full understanding of where we’ve been!