Why History?

History is widely considered to be a core component of a proper homeschooling curriculum. In fact, according to homeschooling authorities Jessie Wise and Susan Wise Bauer, “history is the subject,” because it presents “the unfolding of human achievement in every area – science, literature, art, music, and politics.” Yet how many of us can say we were excited to learn history as a child, that we emerged from our own youth with a history education that actually empowered us to make our way through the world, and that we regularly engage the past of human civilization as a vital component of our lives?There is no shame in admitting that you found history dull, that you thought it was a waste of time, or even that you hated it as a child. The way that it was taught, it probably deserved your disdain! Like Kevin Arnold, the young man of the TV show The Wonder Years, you probably remember history as mind-blowingly boring. I’ll never forget the episode in which Kevin’s history teacher, played by Ben Stein, begins a lesson: “The Hundred Years’ War… Year Four!” As a historian, I laughed and I cringed when I first saw that episode. It captures perfectly why for so many people the mere thought of attending a history lecture causes their eyes to roll to the back of their heads.Honestly, if you like history (or, like me, you love it), you know you are one of only a few.But if history is something almost everyone hated as a child, how can it be something we all believe we need to teach our kids? Is it because we want them to suffer as we did? Of course not. Still, the question remains: “Why history?”In Wise and Bauer’s The Well-Trained Mind, the question is acknowledged, but not really answered. Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns is quoted as saying, “History is the study of everything that has happened until now. Unless you plan to live entirely in the present moment, the study of history is inevitable.” Unfortunately, this answer just raises the question: why shouldn’t one live entirely in the present?Indeed, comparing present-day American culture with others in history, I can honestly say that with the possible exception of the Dark Ages, there has never been a time in history in which a greater percentage of the population was so absorbed by their own personal sphere of concerns and so ignorant of the vast pageant of achievements and failures that is humankind’s past.What of it?The world demands that we get busy living. Modern life especially involves the most complicated set of challenges that people have ever faced. On a daily basis we have to adapt to the fast-paced changes of the professional world. We have to juggle our careers with the needs of our families and friends. We have to take care of our homes, service our cars, and upgrade our computers. We have to stay fit, watch our sugar and caffeine intake, and monitor our cholesterol and our trans fats.Life is the subject, not history. How could anyone possibly argue that the past – a world that is long gone – deserves attention at the expense of the ever-more demanding present? This question deserves a good answer – especially if you are going to dedicate a significant portion of your energy as a homeschooling parent to making sure that your child learns history. Also, you better believe that your child is going to want to know why history is worth the effort, even if he or she does not ask the question out loud.The first part of the answer is that there is no such thing as the present apart from the past.The past is not a world long gone. It permeates the world around us. Indeed, it is the reason there even is a world around us. Without the past, the present would not have come into existence!To grasp this point, sit down in your home school and pick an object – any object – from among your teaching tools and begin dissecting it. But do so historically. My favorite example is an analog clock. It has a clear plastic cover and a plastic casing, but I’m going to leave that aside, along with the dial and the amazing system of Arabic numerals that are inscribed on it. I’m going to focus on the electric motor that powers it, thanks to a current provided by a tiny battery.Where does that come from? How did it come to exist?Obviously it was made in a factory. But how did there come to be factories that make this kind of device? The type of motor in modern clocks was first created by Nikola Tesla, “the man who invented the twentieth century.”Tesla’s inventions, however, were only made possible by the previous work of scientist Michael Faraday, who sixty years earlier discovered the relationships between magnetic fields and electrical currents. Suffice it to say that Faraday learned that magnets can create a current, and that a current can physically move a magnet. Of course, Faraday himself was building upon a foundation of previous scientific work stretching back to the investigation of magnetism by William Gilbert. Gilbert’s On the Magnet, published in 1600, was a milestone in scientific history.It is not an exaggeration to say that the simple clock, which we all take for granted, would not exist but for the ingenious thinking and strenuous efforts of a host of incredible scientific minds going back over 400 years! Not to mention that Gilbert’s work relied on the previous use of the magnetic compass by European sailors, which itself was rooted in the centuries-old use of lodestone by the Chinese.(For a far more engrossing story about the wonders of another ordinary object, I recommend the essay, “I, Pencil,” by economist Leonard Read, which details the mind-boggling complexity of a pencil’s creation, told very humorously from the point of view of the pencil. Read it econlib.org/library/Essays/rdPncl1.html)Applying this method of thinking to an everyday thing is a way of understanding how the world we live in was made. It is an example of how one can gain an essential perspective I call historical-mindedness.Historical-mindedness is the ability to engage the past as a productive aspect of living in the present. It is the capacity to draw on history as an intellectual resource for living.There is a big difference between having such a capacity and merely knowing a lot of facts. The most brilliant people are not those who retain everything, but those who have the instinctive ability to discard anything that isn’t relevant.Regarding history, the real power lies not in piling up more facts, but in being able to see relationships between them. When one can grasp fundamental similarities between past and present, despite circumstantial differences, one can learn and apply the “lessons of history,” i.e. the principles applicable to all human life. If one can grasp the connection between the actions of people in the past, and the world that those actions produced, one can develop a proper appreciation for the man-made values around us.Let us look more closely at these crucial values.When the Founding Fathers created the United States, they realized that many of the problems they faced were unique and required unique solutions. Unquestionably, however, they also looked back on the history of Western civilization, and drew momentous lessons from it, including the fact that the separation of church and state is an objective requirement of progress. Thomas Jefferson, drawing on history, noted, “In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own.” In a previous correspondence, Jefferson remarked, “History… furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government.” His great collaborator in the project of American secularism, James Madison, commented in a letter to a friend that “Every new and successful example, therefore, of a perfect separation between the ecclesiastical and civil matters, is of importance; and I have no doubt that every new example will succeed, as every past one has done, in showing that religion and Government will both exist in greater purity the less they are mixed together.”Two more historical-minded individuals than Jefferson and Madison one cannot find in all of history. But what of Americans today? Can it be said that our politicians, let alone the bulk of the citizenry, are able to glean the lessons to be learned from the past? How many people have an understanding of the defeat of the Zoroastrian theocrats of Persia by the freedom-loving Greeks deeper than the comic book-like depiction of it in the movie “300”? Do Americans carry the lessons of that era with them when directing the destiny of their own country? Do today’s voters think back to the stagnation of the European Dark Ages and compare it to the dynamism of the Islamic Golden Age? Do they think of the regression of Spain under the Inquisition compared to the tolerationist Dutch Republic of the same period? Far too few have such considerations in mind. Consequently, American secularism, and thus the American way of life, is constantly under threat.This historical example can also serve to illustrate the point that historical-mindedness involves being able to better appreciate the values we enjoy and the people who created those values. No one who has made a proper study of history can deny that the founding of the United States and the institutions that buttress its civilization is the most remarkable accomplishment in human governance ever devised. Whether one is drawn to the noble premises of the Declaration of Independence, to the intricate workings of the “separation of powers,” or to the key articles of the Bill of Rights, one finds everywhere the distilled essence of every truth that came before. Of the many things that can be said of the Founders, including an account of their personal flaws or their failure to jettison the legacy of slavery, historical-mindedness demands that one recognize that fundamentally, they were the Founders, and their work is the greatest advance for individual rights and for secularism in history. For the historical-minded American, the 4th of July is not merely a day for fireworks, but a day of most solemn reflection and thanksgiving. It is a way of appreciating the living past.That’s why history is so important. For the historical-minded individual, the same clarity of perception and passion that so many feel towards American rights and freedoms permeates every part of life. It renders the seemingly mundane – an analog clock, or a pencil! – into something wondrous. It gives one the ability to see and enjoy the present on a whole new level.Sadly, the most recent generations of students have been weaned off of history. They’ve been fed the replacement pablum of social studies. Can anyone doubt the tragic results of this substitution when considering the new depth of ignorance to which these students have sunk? Young adults emerge from twelve years of education, and indeed from college, without a meaningful awareness of the Magna Carta, the subsequent development of the English Parliament, and the fact that the English brought these great advances with them on board the Godspeed, the Discovery, and the Susan Constant in 1607. Many Americans thus have no idea that representative government in America, in the form of the Virginia House of Burgesses, which first sat in 1619, predates the arrival of the Mayflower by a year!Why do they have virtually no knowledge of the story of American government? Because social studies presents the spectrum of human experiences as disconnected bits, in no particular order. As so many parents have relayed to me over the years, social studies classes jump from continent to continent, from culture to culture, from theme to theme, quite randomly. The result is that children don’t know which came first, the American Revolution or the Civil War, and they certainly can’t understand why slavery was so hard to abolish in between the two milestones.Only history can weave the myriad and disparate elements of the past together. History shows the sequence of events and uncovers the causes – both of which are forms of integration that render each detail intelligible and more retainable. It is thus only history that can give young minds a complete picture of the past and connect that picture to the present. It is only history that can provide both a proper knowledge of the past, and the ability to deploy that knowledge to improve one’s life in the here and now.I hope that in this closer study of the question of the purpose of history, you feel a new resolve to pursue it. As a homeschooler, you have found the courage to reject the educational status quo, which so many people take for granted. This is in itself a demonstration of historical-mindedness, since it involves rejecting what everyone else accepts in the name of a historical model. Already you have immeasurably helped to remake your child’s educational world.Now all you need is more history! The increased historical-mindedness it will bring can reinforce your appreciation of the freedom to homeschool, fortify your belief in the value of pursuing an independent course, and inspire you to continue being the kind of person who shapes the world, rather than merely lives in it.