Live in the present, plan for the future, study the past?

May 15, 2019

History teachers across the country have or will be asked the question “why is studying history so important?” Sometimes the student truly is inquisitive and would like to know the importance of a given topic but more times than not this question comes from a student trying to get out of something, much like a small child asking their parents why they have to eat vegetables.  

The origin of the question carries less weight than the answer to it. So, why do we study history? At one point it was believed that you were intelligent if you could remember dates and names of important events, recite quotes from people, or reenact famous moments in time. In my humble (in the most literal sense of the word) opinion, I feel those things may help you win “coffee shop” trivia but is knowing that the Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28, 1919 as important as how and why it was signed or what impact it had on the world? 

When I’m asked the question “why are we studying this?” my response is simple...because you’re going to learn something about yourself and the people around you. You see, when we discussed the Civil War I didn’t ask the students to memorize the date of the Battle of Gettysburg, I asked them to tell me why the Battle of Gettysburg happened. We discussed oppression and greed, bravery and sacrifice, victory and defeat. Each topic reached the students in different ways and they were given a chance to articulate what the Civil War meant from their perspective. Replace the Civil War with any topic we discussed this year and result remains, what have you learned about yourself and the people around you? History may not be the most exciting subject in school or the one that will directly impact your ACT score but it will do a lot in terms of self identity. 

As we live today and plan for tomorrow don’t we want students that know who they are and what they stand for based on what they’ve learned from the past?