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Why Learn History ?

This is a question I occasionally get from older children (and not a few childish adults). Despite the anti-intellectual motivation that is usually behind it, this is not an unreasonable question to ask. Basic questions are sometimes the best ones.

Diplomatic historian Walter A. McDougall has an answer that I can happily endorse:

The Three Reasons We Teach History

….The sterility of the current debate over history may be explained by the failure of combatants of all political stripes to acknowledge and grapple with the fact that the teaching of history serves three functions at once. One, obviously, is intellectual. History is the grandest vehicle for vicarious experience: it truly educates (“leads outward” in the Latin) provincial young minds and obliges them to reason, wonder, and brood about the vastness, richness, and tragedy of the human condition. If taught well, it trains young minds in the rules of evidence and logic, teaches them how to approximate truth through the patient exposure of falsehood, and gives them the mental trellis they need to place themselves in time and space and organize every other sort of knowledge they acquire in the humanities and sciences. To deny students history, therefore, is to alienate them from their community, nation, culture, and species.

The second pedagogical function of history is quite different, and often seems to conflict with the first. That is its civic function. From the ancient Israelites and Greeks to the medieval church to the modern nation-state, those charged with educating the next generation of leaders or citizens have used history to impart a reverence for the values and institutions of the creed or state. The post-modern critic may immediately charge that to do so amounts to a misuse of history and the brainwashing of young people: just think of the sectarian history taught in religious schools, the indoctrination imposed by totalitarian regimes, or the flag-waving history that hoodwinked young Americans into volunteering for the Vietnam War. But to cite such examples is to beg the question. The civic purpose of history cannot be abolished, since all history— traditional or subversive of tradition–has a civic effect. So the real questions are whether American schools ought to tilt toward extolling or denouncing our nation’s values and institutions, and how the civic function may be fulfilled without violence to the intellectual function of history.

Those questions are painfully hard to resolve, and are a matter of conscience as much as of reason—which brings us to the third, moral, function of history. If honestly taught, history is the only academic subject that inspires humility. Theology used to do that, but in our present era— and in public schools especially— history must do the work of theology. It is, for all practical purposes, the religion in the modern curriculum. Students whose history teachers discharge their intellectual and civic responsibilities will acquire a sense of the contingency of all human endeavor, the gaping disparity between motives and consequences in all human action, and how little control human beings have over their own lives and those of others. A course in history ought to teach wisdom— and if it doesn’t, then it is not history but something else.

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