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 civic duty.
History teachers should also feel a higher purpose to what they do, not just as teachers, but as history teachers.
When trying to identify a higher purpose to teaching history, I believe teachers should adhere to a couple of guidelines:
- First, the reasons for teaching history should focus on the needs of all students.
- Second, history teachers should not use their position of authority in the classroom for political, philosophical, or religious indoctrination. History can be a controversial subject and history teachers should recognize that students have a right and a responsibility to think for themselves. It’s the not the job of the history teacher to tell students what to think, but to help them learn how to think.
History teachers might use history to develop a sense of citizenship in students. It’s not an overstatement to say that the health of our democratic republic depends on citizens having a good sense of history.
History might also be used to inspire students with biographical stories of heroic people. After all, what person, now and then, doesn’t need a little inspiration to help them make it through the day.
In identifying a higher purpose for teaching history, I believe teachers should take care that 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.
“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
Ten Reasons to Teach History
1. History gives students an opportunity to develop basic skills: reading, writing, and analytical thinking.
In the “real” world students may never 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, students will always need to know how to read, write, and think. Regardless of what students decide to do with their lives, these skills will be vital to their success. History teachers have a profound responsibility to help students develop these skills at the highest levels.
2. History helps students better understand the society in which they live.
Americans live in a diverse and complex society and all of us need to understand the society in which we live. One of the best ways to understand that society is to understand its history, an understanding that is vital not only to our personal happiness, but also the health of our society.
3. History helps students better understand human beings, and in the process of understanding others, students can better 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 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.
4. History helps students understand people who are different.
Learning to think historically requires that students learn to avoid presentism. That is, students must learn to study the past by minimizing the biases of the present. To understand people from the eighteenth century students must be able to put themselves in that time period, knowing only what the people of that time knew. If students develop this skill successfully they will then be able to understand people from 200 years ago or 2000 years ago. They will also be able to understand people in modern times who live on the other side of town or the other side of the world.
5. History allows students to gain perspective and learn to see a bigger picture.
History allows students to leave the confines of their environment and see themselves as a product of thousands of years of history. Two thousand years ago 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 allowed them to overcome tremendous obstacles. Let students learn about these people and their triumphs. Use history to inspire students and help them learn to find within themselves 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 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? Look to history. 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.
Students should be aware of how close they are in time to the events they study in their history classes. Considering that an average life span is seventy-five years, it was only two lifetimes ago that it was 1857, and Abraham Lincoln had not yet been elected president of the United States. Only three lifetimes ago it was 1782 and George Washington had not yet been elected president. In fact, only three lifetimes ago the US Constitution had not yet been written. Students should be taught to recognize their close connection to the past. They might know someone who survived the Great Depression and World War II. Teachers should also recognize that the students they teach today are likely to live into the 2060s and 2070s. The children of today’s students will likely live into the 2100s.
9. History is entertaining and fun.
A class that turns history into a dry recitation of facts will not engage students, and there is no reason a teacher should not make a history class an enjoyable place for students to spend time. History is full of drama, suspense, romance, tragedy, and comedy. Let the facts speak for themselves and students cannot help but find entertainment in stories from the past.
10. History allows students to dream and wonder; it gives them the opportunity to imagine a better future.
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 grounded in reality.
"Why Teach History?” and "Ten Reasons for Teaching History"
© 2007 James L. Smith