Secondary Education Social Studies with a History Emphasis
Secondary Education Social Studies with a History Emphasis
W H Y S T U D Y H I S T O R Y
Professor Susan Hellert
I'm tempted to answer with a "Motherism" learned through the generations: Because it is good for you!
The Roman historian Livy wrote: "History is the best medicine for a sick mind, for in history you have a record of the infinite variety of human experience plainly set out for all to see, and in that record you can find for yourself and your country both examples and warnings: fine things to take as models, base things rotten through and through to avoid." By acquainting oneself with the past we delight in knowing even more. History offers us heroes and villains, enlarges our sense of the human capacity for good and evil, challenges our own commitments and values and teaches how humanity (with its variety of religions and customs) has dealt with the world. It, therefore, broadens our own humanity and points us in the direction of self‑knowledge.
History is a humanistic discipline which promotes humane values. We, as teachers, must not become preachers of morality, but we must recognize that there are limits to objectivity. We must maintain a commitment to humane values and sympathy for the qualities of fortitude, steadfastness, endurance, civic virtue, service to humanity, and dedication to the greater good when each of these are embodied in historical movements and personalities. Through History we can enjoy the vicarious experience of other times and people which makes us more complete as humans. Today's students all too often express a fatalistic attitude, a belief that these are indeed the worst of times but History can also offer us a perspective to our lives and the events around us. It can offer hope and the reassurance that civilization has and will continue in the face of great discouragement and real hardship. Frederick Schiller wrote: "History, insofar as it accustoms human beings to comprehend the whole of the past and to hasten forward with its conclusions into the far future, conceals the boundaries of birth and death, which enclose the life of the human being so narrowly and oppressively, and with a kind of optical illusion, expands his short existence into endless space, leading the individual imperceptibly over into humanity." By the study of History, we as individuals realize our role in the great process that connects us with the remote past and distant future. We can transcend our short existence and realize our importance as an individual link in the story of humanity. Historical knowledge is a collective memory. It makes us wiser in our public choices and more humane in our private lives. Imagine yourself with no memory ‑ you would have no identity. While ignorance of the past wouldn't paralyze your everyday private life, it would deprive you of your best guide when meeting strangers. This applies to a nation as well as an individual. Just as your behavior toward people, events, and ideas is rooted in your past (memory), so is a nation's response to other nations or civilizations based on its collective memory. This memory is not fixed it changes with the passage of time, as new sources are discovered, and as new questions are posed. It is history's function to reinterpret the past. Democratic citizenship requires that we as citizens share a reasonably accurate collective memory or we will fail to foresee how others are likely to react. The results of such historical illiteracy are surprises and frustrations. Our government and the press are constantly surprised by world events ‑ the 1987 stock market crash; the magnitude of the freedom movement in Eastern Europe in 1989 and 1990. We also ignore or fail to appreciate the importance of new problems ‑ AIDS; the environment ‑ and give them a lower priority than the more familiar problems. The many institutions which govern our everyday lives are not recent, they were formed hundreds or thousands of years ago. If the past did not matter but only how we respond to the present then what of religion, governments, the arts, and even the act of writing. We (individuals, nations, civilizations) are the sum total of our collective memory‑history. Our actions of today which shape our futures are imbedded in our pasts. Without an understanding of how and why people act as they do we are greatly hindered in our own actions. A greater danger presents itself when we do not feel so hindered and simply react with no regard for the history of others and therefore no hint as to the future repercussions of our actions.
The world is a complicated and diverse place. There are no neat categories for everything or everyone. Science can't provide the answers because it discounts time. Current events distort time and are doomed to obsolence. Nostalgia, although popular is mostly a mindless activity. We must not only look into the past but learn and understand it. We live with uncertainty and act on the basis of the best guesswork possible. The changing perspectives of History are the best introduction to practical problems of real life. History teaches students to recognize reality however that may change.
History makes us social, the sharing of ideas and ideals. We form different human groups and each group acts as it does because of these shared beliefs of the past as understood and interpreted by that group. Therefore, we learn not only about the present but the probable future. History can't predict the future. It does offer practical wisdom and teaches us to expect differences and similarities, changes and continuities, probabilities and possibilities ‑ in other words ‑ Life. There are no unchanging truths. All we as humans can do to unravel these mysteries is to continue the unending effort to understand ourselves and others.
Americans are basically an optimistic people. We believe all will come out happy at the end, but History teaches us that there is no "happy ever after". Walter Lippman wrote in 1914: "Modern men are afraid of the past. It is a record of human achievement, but its other face is human defeat." We must learn from our defeats as well as our victories and realize that not all problems have solutions. We must teach our students at a young age to respect facts and be able to distinguish them from conjecture. There is a persistent belief by Americans that what works in the United States will work equally well elsewhere since everyone is basically alike. This is indicative of historical illiteracy. It is necessary to provide our students with an account of the American past that describes where we came from and how we developed our national identity, government, and institutions that explains how we differ from other peoples and they from us, and why and what the consequences of this are. We must emphasize World History as well to underscore just how interdependent we all are. Our planet is growing rapidly smaller. To survive we must appreciate the worth of others. It is no longer possible to ignore the outside world, or worse to let others formulate policy without our knowledge or understanding. We are responsible for this earth and the life, or lack thereof, on it. If we are to leave a positive legacy to our children, we must act rationally on the basis of a strong historical literary and assume our obligations as citizens of a democracy which offers a beacon of hope to the millions who are fighting for that very freedom we take for granted.
Source: Historical Literacy: The Case for History in American Education. Edited by Paul Gagnon and the Bradley Commission on History in Schools. Macmillan Publishing Co., New York. 1989.