Why Study History?

{The first assignment in my American History class was to write a 1 page essay on how studying history can impact your career or future. I have copied the text of my essay below.}

In his acceptance speech for the 1995 National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters David McCullough said the following regarding the state of historical knowledge in America today.

“The situation is serious and sad. And it is quite real, let there be no mistake. It has been coming on for a long time, like a creeping disease, eating away at the national memory. While the clamorous popular culture races on, the American past is slipping away, out of site and out of mind. We are losing our story, forgetting who we are and what it’s taken to come this far.”

And he is very correct. Large majorities of American’s do not possess even a basic understanding of American History. I am sad to admit that I am one of them. Part of the reason is a lack of understanding of how all those names and dates could possibly impact my future. So, we are left with the question, “How is history important to me and my future?”

As a parent who has chosen to educate their children at home, I have found myself asking questions like that a lot. And it’s not just about history. I question the reasoning behind learning almost every subject, and I question what is the best method for teaching each subject. In my research I have come across many different explanations, and those that have resonated most with me have come from Charlotte Mason. While her writings about how and why to teach each subject regard children I feel there is much that can be applied to the adult student or parent as well.

History enriches the minds of teacher and student.

As part of Mason’s philosophy of education she outlines the place history should take in learning by saying,

“I have already spoken of history as a vital part of education and have cited the counsel of Montaigne that the teacher ‘shall by the help of histories inform himself of the worthiest minds that were in the best ages.’ To us in particular who are living in one of the great epochs of history it is necessary to know something of what has gone before in order to think justly of what is occurring to-day.”

Learning history gives the teacher an example of great minds to follow, and it gives the student, be they child or adult, ideas to reflect on about what impact current events might have on future generations and us.

Understanding History makes us better citizens.

Mason continues with,

“It is still true that, ––

“Things done without example, in their issue
Are to be feared. Have you a precedent
Of this commission?” (Henry VIII.)

“We applaud the bluff King’s wisdom and look uneasily for precedents for the war and the peace and the depressing anxieties that have come in their train. We are conscious of a lack of sound judgment in ourselves to decide upon the questions that have come before us and are aware that nothing would give us more confidence than a pretty wide acquaintance with history.”

A sound knowledge, or as Mason describes it a pretty wide acquaintance, with history can increase in us a confidence in our judgments of political events making us better citizens of whatever community we are a part of.

True patriotism is a result of knowledge of and respect for our history.

Lastly, Mason states that,

“…young people… are equally indifferent, nor have their elders such stores of interest and information as should quicken children with the knowledge that always and everywhere there have been great parts to play and almost always great men to play those parts: that any day it may come to anyone to do some service of historical moment to the country. It is not too much to say that a rational well-considered patriotism depends on a pretty copious reading of history, and with this rational patriotism we desire our young people shall be informed rather than with the jingoism of the emotional patriot.”

I feel like I want to be the rational patriot that Mason describes, rather than the emotional patriot. There is a true difference in the amount of respect a person gains when they fight for a cause with a full understanding of where it came from as opposed to the amount of respect a person loses when they fight for a cause because they have been told it is the patriotic thing to do.

History gives us examples of good character.

In her thoughts on Home Education, Mason states

“[History] is a subject which should be to the child an inexhaustible storehouse of ideas, … and should form in him, insensibly, principles whereby he will hereafter judge of the behavior of nations, and will rule his own conduct as one of a nation.”

Perhaps even more important than the knowledge of where we have come from is the increase in character that can come along with that knowledge. The more we set good examples before us the easier it is to build those good characteristics in each of us as individuals.

Everything we have is a part of our history, and we do not appreciate it enough.

Given all the benefits of an education that involves history, it is easy to see why McCullough was so distraught at the state of history education in America. I think he said it best when he said,

“History shows us how to behave. History teaches, reinforces what we believe in, what we stand for, and what we ought to be willing to stand up for. History is-or should be-the bedrock of patriotism, not the chest-pounding kind of patriotism but the real thing, love of country.

“At their core, the lessons of history are largely lessons in appreciation. Everything we have, all our great institutions, hospitals, universities, libraries, this city, our laws, our music, art, poetry, our freedoms, everything is because somebody went before us and did the hard work, provided the creative energy, provided the money, provided the belief.”

May we all become more grateful for the work of those who have gone before, and more willing to honor them by learning all that they have to teach us.

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8 thoughts on “Why Study History?

  1. Mom

    Well said.

  2. Excellent post! When my 16-old-nephew was visiting years ago, he said, “I HATE history – it has nothing to do with me!” That saddened me, but was the result of the education he had up to that point. Those pursuing a CM education (and others, also) take such a radically different approach – an approach that makes intelligent, thoughtful and good citizens. (Kudos to you for being in college full-time!)
    Ring true,

    • Jennifer Lavender

      Thank you for stopping by and leaving this kind comment. It’s sad to admit that my 16-year-old self would probably have said the exact same thing. History was an easy A because I was really good at memorizing the lists of dates and names, but I also quickly forgot it after the test was over and I never did gain any lasting benefit from my history classes. I am so glad to be a home schooling mom so I can relearn history alongside my children.

  3. I never really understood the point of learning history when I was in school. I realize its importance now, and I hope I can do a good job of making it interesting and relevant for my children.

    • Jennifer Lavender

      Interesting can be accomplished if you use the right books and stories, bet relevance is a whole different monster. That’s something I certainly hope for as well.

  4. Eve

    Wonderful post. I completely agree!
    Someday we and our families will be the “history” someone else reads about! It’s
    all part of the wheel of time.

    • Jennifer Lavender

      Do you ever wonder what people will think when they read our part of history? Or what parts will be “edited out” because the person who writes it down doesn’t think it’s important?

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