(Photo: This day, fifty years ago. The March on Washington for Jobs and Justice.)
If you think your life, your family, your society and your world matter, there is no way around concluding that history matters. History is about who we are at every level. We do not live in a vacuum. We are connected to other people, not just in the present, but also in the past. We have each been shaped by circumstances and people too numerous to count or know. It is no wonder that an overwhelming majority of Americans are somehow engaged in activities related to the past, according to Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen. They do this to understand themselves better, to find meaning in the stories of their families and to inform their personal choices. Political leaders frequently invoke the past, either in public speeches to build credibility for their actions or in private meetings as they struggle through difficult decisions that will impact their personal legacies. The content, skills, process and purpose of history matter greatly.
The content of history matters. The best history does not merely list facts, despite standardized tests’ focus on the low-level thinking skill of memorization. History comes alive when we explore the richness of its content — what happened, why did it happen and what is its lingering relevance? What happened in the past has a deep impact on our contemporary context. When I talk about race, for example, who I am relative to my ancestors and other people’s ancestors matters in a society with a complex and ugly experience with racial oppression. Educators like Lisa Delpit have made it plain that “colorblindness” is neither a possible nor preferable way to function in U.S. society. That history is worth knowing if we are interested in a future that is more humane than our past. I believe that the personal choices I make will impact that goal, so I better be well-informed!
History is endlessly fascinating because it is a window into a world of ideas and offers stories of choices our kind has made when faced with various circumstances that are both similar and different from our own today. History can give us an invaluable frame of reference to make good choices. George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Have various state legislatures and the Supreme Court turned the clock back on voting rights in the United States even as the country remembers and celebrates the famous March on Washington, which gave momentum to the effort to pass the 1963 Voting Rights Act? John Lewis thinks so. History has helped leaders make both ethical and unethical choices. For example, after the Vietnam War, U.S. presidents have been wary of sending American troops into combat for fear of amassing casualties. Perhaps a lesson learned is that war is terribly costly to human life; therefore we ought to approach it with the utmost care. But is it an ethical choice to send in drones to attack enemy targets to avoid the loss of American lives when we know numerous non-American civilians have died, unseen by technicians sitting in front of a computer far from their lethal machines? History has plenty of lessons for us to learn. What we think those lessons are and what we do with them are moral struggles that matters.
The skills of history matter. History requires valuable scholarly and intellectual skills. Evidence of the past must be located, evaluated for authenticity and viewed together with other bits of evidence. We have to think critically about the available evidence in order to hypothesize what happened in the past and develop a supportable case. We must then exercise strong communication skills to make those ideas clear and inviting (which helps people want to read our work). I want to become a history teacher because history is an exciting place of ideas and ethical issues and it is a fantastic vehicle to teach higher-order thinking and communication skills. These are crucial to a vibrant and just democracy and that matters a great deal to me. Additionally, due to the rapid advancements in automation and other technologies, education visionaries assert that individuals will need these higher-order thinking skills and the mental agility to adapt to a constantly changing job market.
The process of history matters. I’m not a fan of skinning cats, but it seems there are many ways to do so. Far from the image of a dull, dusty subject, history is alive and never done. (Perhaps we should skin the boring history teachers who have done our subject wrong!). Who knew the past could be such an active place? The Eurocentric view of World History, for example, has shifted tremendously in recent decades with the introduction of other interpretations and perspectives. It matters if we understand Western dominance in the world being due to cultural and racial superiority versus being a result of European’s geographic good fortune and ability to catch up with and borrow technologies and knowledge from Asia. (Thanks Jared Diamond and others like Jack Goldstone). Colonialism is almost dead now because today’s history does not present it as a glorious achievement of higher races. One could argue other systems have replaced it, keeping Western countries economically superior, but the end of de jure colonialism is worth honoring. The point is that history is a process and we must continue to engage with the past to gain new and meaningful insight.
The purpose of history matters. Paolo Friere described the purpose of education being either for liberation or oppression. The same could be said of history. George Orwell wrote, “Who controls the past controls the future.” Many have said that history is the story of the victors and not the vanquished. Many liberation movements have found clues in their own history that have helped them strategically and psychologically overcome oppression. One independence movement after another in the Global South had to overturn their colonizer’s historical paradigms, taught in their schools, in order to unravel entrenched social orders. The development of Social History in the last fifty years has opened our eyes to the experience of ordinary people, showing that history need not just be the story of the powerful. History, in my opinion, should always be moving humanity to greater progress. I don’t mean that historians should necessarily assert a specific policy agenda, but they can aid societies as they figure out how to make the world better for each successive generation. Really, I believe this about all learning. Historians can challenge faulty narratives, present alternative perspectives about the past and ask relevant questions. That may sound simple, but I think it’s profound. I am interested in history because I believe what we human beings do with our lives and our world matter.