Why does history matter?

Liz Lefebvre| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
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I can’t tell you how many times I had this conversation over the course of my college career:

What are you studying in college?

I’m a history major.

Oh…so you want to be a teacher?

No, not really.

Oh…so you want to work in a museum?

No, probably not.

(And, this was my personal favorite:)

Well, you can probably work at a McDonald’s someday.

Meaning no disrespect to teachers, museum curators, or McDonald’s employees, at this point in the conversation I would generally smile through gritted teeth and either change the subject or launch into a verbose response about the merits of studying history.

So, I couldn’t help but be especially disheartened after reading this article in the New York Times about American students lacking knowledge of the basic history of the civil rights movement. New findings from the Southern Poverty Law Center show that American students are woefully undereducated about this part of American history. States were assigned letter grades based on how extensively academic standards address the civil rights movement. Thirty-five states received an F grade, with many states not being required to address the movement at all.

The article mentions that due to the chronological nature of teaching history, teachers often run out of time by the end of the school year to cover any material post-World War II. However, the problem extends beyond finding time to teach the civil rights movement and “modern” history. The study also showed that only 12 percent of high school seniors taking federal examinations showed “proficiency” in history. Leaving aside the debate on how effective standardized tests are at measuring knowledge without bias, this number is still shockingly low (but matches with the recent report of low SAT scores among U.S. high school students).

Why are our students so undereducated about American history? One problem in my mind is that the way that history is often taught to our youth makes the subject matter less than compelling. A larger focus is generally placed on memorizing years and being able to recite key bullet point facts about individual people or significant events, rather than on teaching why these people and events are important to our collective history.

Many of my peers in college expressed that they found history boring, and that they were bad at memorization so therefore were “bad” at history. (To each his or her own—certainly my own interest would not be held in many of the classes that they chose to take.) I often explain that in college, I never once had to recite a list of dates on an exam. Instead, I was always tested on my ability to think critically, analyze events, understand cause and effect, present an argument clearly, and support my statements using original sources. The questions I answered were not, “In what year did this event take place?” but rather: What political, economic, and social factors led to this event? Why was this event significant? What happened as direct or indirect result of it? What motivated people involved in this situation to make the decisions they did?

These are important questions to be considered. History is more than just a study of “the past” – it is in essence a study of people. American history is a study of who we are as a nation. Knowing that many students aren’t even being taught basic facts about a vital piece of our nation’s identity is cause for concern.

As the SPLC says, “Teaching the civil rights movement is essential to ensuring that American history is relevant to students in an increasingly diverse nation.” Learning about being an active, engaged citizen; learning how to recognize injustice; learning that America has not been immune to injustice in even its recent past – these are just a few of the important lessons our youth are at risk of not learning from not being taught about the civil rights movement.

History and tradition matter when it comes to understanding our faith, as well. While debating everything from the new mass translations to offering communion in both kinds, it is important for us to know the history of our faith (including the Jewish culture that Jesus lived in, how the Bible was put together, and political factors influencing decisions of popes). Many universities even combine their history and theology classes for degrees in “historical theology” because it is impossible to separate the two and understand them fully.

People argue that history is subjective, told by the “winners.” If so, then it is even more important to educate on thinking critically, identifying the audience that a source is intended for, and knowing the historical factors that bring someone to a current worldview. It’s important to learn the stories of our past and also to understand that history is formed from reaction and adaption. It is dynamic—created and changed every day.

Our actions today will influence our country and the world in the future. Let’s hope that future generations will be given the opportunity to study them.

Related: Apparently The Onion and I are on the same page today.