I writed this for my students. It's long and boring.
WHY DO WE STUDY HISTORY?
Written by: Greenleaf Dodge
I’m sure that almost every high school or junior high student, sometime during their educational experience, has asked themselves these questions: Why do we study history? Why do we have to suffer through these classes in which we have little to no interest? Although asked in moments of frustration, these are nonetheless important questions. Questions which require an answer if we are to continue to expect students to sit through the unending lectures about what we consider important dates, people, and events.
In my opinion, there are actually many answers to these questions. However, I believe one of the most important answers as to why we study the past is so that we can learn to remember. “Well,” a student might then ask, “Why is it so important to remember? Everything I learn in history class seems so distant and so boring. To me what is important is what’s going on around us today.”
Indeed, the art of remembering is sometimes pushed aside even in our history classes. Our teachers emphasize group work, creativity, critical thinking, and a whole list of other skills, but being taught to remember is sometimes considered, even by teachers, to be too tedious or pointless. But those who hold this opinion are wrong; we must continue to look back and learn about and from those who came before us. And not only learn, but remember. For this reason you will still hear the great teachers say, “It is important to remember that . . .” because they know that some things we should never forget.
But still I have not answered the question of the why. Why do we need to remember? There are many reasons, but today I will give you three.
The first reason we are taught about the past and asked to remember is because, in learning about the past, we are able to see first-hand what is required of us if we want to accomplish great things. When we learn about such people as Lincoln, Dr. King, and Washington, we are essentially opening up a training manual. The historian is saying to us, “Do you want to do great things? Do you want to change your family, or your community, or your country? This is how you do it. Follow these lessons learned from these people.”
And it is important to note, that we don’t just learn about greatness from famous people. (Indeed, most of us assume that we are never going to impact society like General Washington or Martin Luther King Jr.) Rather, as we study history, we also learn how important the ordinary citizen is in changing society for the better. How would World War II have turned out differently without the everyday “citizen soldier” of the United States? How would pre Civil War society have been different without the help of the unnamed and unknown who assisted on the Underground Railroad?
By learning about the past, we are learning what we need to do today. When we experience prejudice or disunity or tyranny, we remember Martin Luther King Jr. or Abraham Lincoln or George Washington and we remember how we should act and what we should do.
The second reason we need to learn to remember is because the past helps us keep the present in perspective. Without a knowledge of history, the events of today can so easily overwhelm us. When we hear the news or read the paper, we might be tempted to feel like the world is collapsing around us or our nation is going to fail. Even in our individual lives, sometimes our hearts are broken or we might feel like there is no hope.
However, the study of history and of people teaches us that tragedy and hopelessness can, with hard work and determination, still be overcome. As a people we survived brother killing brother in the Civil War, we triumphed after Pearl Harbor, and we overcame 9/11. Also, individually the families and loved ones of millions have pushed forward after tragedy and created for themselves a world of peace and hope.
Surely, with this knowledge and background, we can persevere today through whatever else may come our way. As we look back and remember the past, we can look forward with more hope, knowing that so many have traveled this road before us.
Finally, we need to remember the past because learning about the past helps us remember to be grateful. When we only focus on the here and now, we might be tempted to feel like life has not treated us fairly. Perhaps we don’t have as much money or friends or things as we think we deserve. Or maybe our life hasn’t run exactly as we feel it should have. But as we look back and learn about and remember people and events which have come before, we realize that many people have done much, much more with much, much less.
How can we not feel grateful when we learn about those who have suffered through so much more than we have? Think of the suffering soldiers at Valley Forge or those who froze crossing the plains. Think about those who lost everything they had in the Depression or who couldn’t go to school because of their race or gender. Yet they did not give up. They continued to fight and work for those things that were important to them.
The challenge is then to remember. Remember those who have gone before.