Blog Submission: Why Learn History?

(Editor’s note: This post was submitted by a fellow reenactor, Chris Ketcherside. He is the first to submit a post, and I hope you enjoy!)

I thought about titling this missive, “Why Teach History” but I don’t think this audience needs convincing on why to teach, but everyone can use a few “how-tos” now and then.  The purpose of this then is to have a tool in your toolbox for when you are asked the inevitable question, “Why are we learning this?”  As surprising at it is, one finds upon exiting academia that a love of history is by no means universal, so hopefully this will prove helpful.

Why study history?  Why is it taught in schools?  Why is it a requirement?

The usual platitude trotted out is the “Those who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it.”  This well worn paraphrase from George Santayana is well meant, but inaccurate.  It is most often repeated by teachers who don’t know better reason, and thus it has little impact on the student who can’t possible imagine how lacking knowledge of the Teapot Dome Scandal will cause him or her to make the same mistake.

Even if earnestly applied, as it often is by legions of teachers, it is inaccurate.  History does not repeat, per se, but it cycles.  Given any current or recent event of today, even the amateur historian can find a historical parallel.   If history cycles, there is a point and purpose to learning from it.

In an interview with Reader’s Digest David McCullough makes some very pertinent points about learning history.   To paraphrase him, he said that history teaches us values; what we stand for and what we should be willing to stand for. For him, and as it should be for all of us, “History is about life – human nature and the human condition.”  He also says, and I want to get this quote accurate as well, “Indifference to history isn’t just ignorant; it’s a form of ingratitude.”  We all stand where we are on the backs, on the efforts and exertions of those who went before us, for which we can at least pay them back a pittance by learning who they were.  For him, history tells us where we came from, who we are, and who we ought to be.

Unfortunately, little passion for history exists in the United States.  An offhand observation that has always appeared to me is that, in Europe and other places, they have too much knowledge and appreciation of history, while here we have too little.  In the Balkans, the Battle of Kosovo is remembered with more detail and reverence than Gettysburg is here.  This is not necessarily good, as what good can come out of the grudges and emotions of a battle 600 years old?  On the other hand, in the U.S., the common thought seems to be that only events in the last 10 years are worth remembering, and if it didn’t happen in their lifetime, it doesn’t matter at all.  Neither extreme is good.

This state of mind in the U.S., I blame on high schools.  There is a morass of problems in public education here that I can’t even begin to address, but I think I can provide some thought on how history can be better passed along and appreciated.

Stephen Ambrose wrote that, to be a great history teacher, you need three things; an in depth knowledge of history (as far as that is possible!), a love of history, and the ability to tell a good story.  Barbara Tuchman also remarked that to be a good historian one must “Tell stories.”  That may strike you as quaint, but don’t be fooled.  Luckily, knowledge of history will go hand in hand with the love of it.  If you love it, you will learn it.  Many teachers have these two qualities.  Unfortunately, the ability to tell a good story is a rarer talent, and, while it can be learned, it is difficult to do so, particularly if you don’t recognize the lack of it.  To put it another way, you may know history, and you may love history (as many of us do) but you must make it come alive or appeal to students who are indifferent to it.
The trick is to entertain without trivializing.   To impart and share the love and enthusiasm you have for the topic but without treating it so lightly the lessons are missed.  Richard Mulligan’s character in Teachers may have gone too far; or maybe not.  Getting the attention of hormone addled teens and imparting a few lessons on them while they don’t notice it is no small trick.

Let me say here that if your only intent is rote memorization of names, dates, and places, there is not much I can do to help.  While entertaining associations can help with that, if that is your only intent, then I apologize, this essay is wasting your time.  Unfortunately, it seems often enough that that is all history classes can try to do.  But names, dates, and places are only the tools that students must use to draw the real lessons of history.

McCullough’s inspirations, or admonishments, depending on how you look at them, on the surface can do much to tell us why we should learn history.  Explaining to the prospective student of history that they should not be ungrateful may work. But, his explanation carries the weight of both why and how.  History, being cyclical, teaches life lessons about values and choices that the student can use.  At the very least, history can show the student tools for decision making with real world examples.
I have an illustrative example from my own life of what I am trying to convey here.  One night my wife and I were watching Pearl Harbor with Ben Affleck, Josh Hartnett, and so on.  Not exactly a history lesson, but a visually stunning work in some ways.  During the scene showing the Japanese aircraft taking off from their carriers for their attack, with all their enthusiasm and optimism, my wife just asked out loud, “Why did they do this?  What were they thinking?”  This to me showed all the failings of history as it is often taught.  She is a smart woman, she got her degree in engineering, but in high school she had no interest in history at all. She learned all she was required too, that the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese occurred on December 7th, 1941 and was the reason the U.S. entered the war, but the whys and wherefores were never discussed.  The lessons that could be drawn here are numerous.  She was confused because she knew that the attack on Pearl Harbor resulted in a nuclear attack on Japan.  She saw that easily enough, through the lens of the all knowing present.  I explained the reasons the Japanese could not see that coming, and why they thought we would not be willing to fight.  I explained that the Japanese were victims of assumptions they could not verity but did not question.  There are a lot of simple, applicable lessons about perceptions and decision making one can draw from Pearl Harbor that can be presented and used by history students who are not in love with history for its own sake.

No one is going to be Napoleon standing at Waterloo on June 18th, 1815.  It’s unlikely anyone will even be in a comparable position.   It is important to learn that Napoleon lost this battle, and with it his dreams of empire and his freedom.  And it is equally important to learn that this battle ended years of warfare by Napoleon and led to almost completely peaceful century.  But there is much more to be learned.  What was the process of decision making for the principle people involved?  Where did they go right and wrong, and what can we learn and use from that?  At the very least, you can learn that if you have something important to do today, don’t wait to start so late in the morning!

It would be overly optimistic to hope that we can fire a passion for history that we have in all our students, but none the less, we should try.   As long as we recognize the challenge, we can we can work to solve it in any number of ways.  Hopefully, between the moral compulsions and practical tools we can create an interest in history for those without an inherent one, across all disciplines.

Chris Ketcherside

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