Value of History
Ignorance of Past Makes Us Prisoners of Our Own Time
Trying to solve today's problems without knowledge of the past is like steering a ship through iceberg-infested waters with nothing visible below the surface.
By Thomas Vaughan
High school graduates today have a haphazard relationship with history, a brief contact which seldom develops into a resource which could help them live with the present and face the future with equanimity.
An analysis just completed by the Oregon Historical Society under a grant from the Oregon Committee for the Humanities shows that even American history has failed to hold its own in the state's secondary schools during the past 10 years.
In 1968, a student graduating from any Oregon secondary school was required to pass a one-year survey of American history. Of the 104 schools responding to our survey, only 58 now require this.
Two schools require a year of American history from the Civil War to the present, 25 require less than one year (a semester of U.S. history with emphasis on the 20th century is not uncommon) and 19 have no explicit history requirement.
Perhaps the greatest casualty over the past 10 years has been the traditional one-year course in world history--a requirement in about one-third of the schools we surveyed 10 years ago. Today it is required in almost none.
Ten years ago there were secondary school teachers who taught five sections of world history each day; now their schools probably do not even offer this class. Many experienced teachers are, to put it mildly, concerned and frustrated.
It is true that a greater variety of history electives is available now than 10 years ago, but too often this situation only creates an intellectual smorgasbord where the student may sample the fare but pass unfulfilled.
Excellent electives are offered only to be canceled because they do not attract the minimum number of students. Some of these classes last for less than one semester and deal only with a specialized topic or time period. No matter how excellent they may be in themselves, nine-week history classes cannot take the place of a comprehensive survey course as an introduction to history.
Someone who does not know that World War I preceded the Great Depression and that it was followed by World War II and other momentous events really does not know much about this country.
History is in more precarious health today than it was 10 years ago, in Oregon and throughout the country.
The momentary trend today rampant on all levels of education and public life is ahistorical; many believe history a pleasant diversion for antiquarians, perhaps, but not an important subject entitled to any special consideration in secondary or collegiate education.
I believe this is a tragically mistaken opinion. Our own time can only be understood imperfectly; without knowledge of the past it is not really understood at all--only endured.
Present problems and complexities have not descended upon us overnight: They have a long history. Without knowledge of their history can one make correct decisions about their remedy? Trying to solve today's problems without knowledge of the past is like steering a ship through iceberg-infested waters with nothing visible below the surface.
Not every fact learned in a history class will have immediate relevance to a current problem. Nor will some comprehension of the past automatically result in correct decisions about the present. However, without knowledge of the past, more wrong decisions will be made.
Without an understanding of history we lose our sense of proportion and become imprisoned within our own time. We cannot draw upon the experiences of other centuries and cultures in which people confronted similar situations. Isolated in our own time, unable to profit from previous experience, we are more likely to make imprudent, one-dimensional decisions in the giddy present counter to the vital interests of our future.
Some knowledge of history promotes human understanding in the most literal sense of that much-abused phrase. The study of history allows the student to understand the historical process which produced him and existed some time before the day he was born and has also conditioned other people whom he encounters.
The road to self-knowledge is broadened and extended through comprehending the attitudes and motives of people of disparate background. We cannot always learn to like each other, but we should at least try to understand each other.
Aside from the sheer pleasure and excitement involved in learning history, shared knowledge of the past is a rich ingredient in the cement that binds together any truly viable civilization.
What I am talking about here is not some kind of tribal nationalism, but the deep moral authority that must underlie the life of any free people. Without some knowledge of our own past we are faceless strangers temporarily occupying the same piece of real estate.
As Felix Frankfurter once put it:
"The ultimate foundation of a free society is the binding tie of cohesive sentiment. Such a sentiment is fostered by all those agencies of the mind and spirit which may serve to gather up the traditions of a people, transmit them from generation to generation, and thereby create that continuity of the treasured common life which constitutes civilization."
The academic discipline of history can best do this.
It will profit a nation little to possess the most competent accountants, economists, doctors and electricians if it loses sight of the common heritage which should bind its citizenry together. Police work will then become the most important occupation, because only force can hold together a society that does not rest on voluntary agreement.
As columnist Russell Kirk recently emphasized: "The modern, unhistorical or anti-historical attitude is unique in the history of civilized man as a widespread social phenomenon . . . [I suspect] that a people uninterested in history presently will cease to have a history, or be a people."
The past must be given a strong voice to speak to the present. Study of what peoples have achieved in the past can often prove the criteria for deciding what is possible in our times.
History is, above all, the account and explanation of silent and tumultuous change. How did the Age of Enlightenment and religious indifference gradually supplant an age of militant faith and religious persecution? How did the minimum state and laissez-faire economy give way to the modern welfare state?
Without some grasp of the past, generalizations about the past and change are meaningless. Of course, if institutions and beliefs remained static, we could afford to dispense with history, knowing that our knowledge of now would enable us to cope with the certain problems of tomorrow. But one thing we all know together is that in human existence, there are only one or two constants.
Not long ago at one of our area high schools it became apparent that the bright and articulate students participating in a round table discussion did not know the names of the World War II president of the United States, the fuhrer of Germany or the wartime prime minister of Great Britain. (Indeed, Joseph Stalin was identified as the English prime minister!)
Are people to complete 12 years of school in Oregon and know nothing about the disturbed days of the first half of our century or the architects of what we are so strenuously trying to cope with today?
Let us not confuse history with the rote memorization of names and dates. Memorizing long lists of names and dates is very useful, but it is no more the stuff of history than mastery of the multiplication tables is the essence of mathematics.
Above all, history is concerned with people--with us--our aspirations and fears, our sublime moments, our institutions and beliefs. It will not increase anyone's understanding of either the past or the present to memorize the names of the wartime leaders like some kind of algebraic equation.
It will be enormously instructive, however, if high school graduates know something about what kind of men Stalin and Churchill were, what they did, and as far as it is possible to know, why they did what they did.
What I am proposing is more down-to-earth than revolutionary, or counterrevolutionary: A high school graduation requirement of at least two years of history. One year should be devoted to American history and one year to Western civilization or the history of a nation or a group of nations which are part of that civilization.
American history begins with our multicultured native American tribes, not with the Declaration of Independence or the Stamp Act; but this country is in essence an integral part of Western civilization.
Our political founders looked across the Atlantic for precedent and example when they formed a new government, and this country was profoundly influenced and shaped by the evolution of English institutions, the Protestant Reformation, the ideas of the ancients, and 150 years of colonial frontier experience. It is vital that students have some knowledge of that civilization.
Some may cavil, stating that this approach is "ethnocentric," that by concentrating on the West we are ignoring the great civilizations of Islam and the Orient. But in order to appreciate and comprehend other civilizations, it is first necessary to understand something about one's own.
People should know something about Martin Luther and the Reformation, the rise of representative government in England, the American Civil War and the two catastrophic wars of this century before they become acquainted with Mohammad or Indian mysticism or the dynasties of ancient China.
Even in order to grasp the profound impact of the West on non-Western cultures, it is necessary to know something about the West's civilization. After learning about their own civilization, most students will naturally want to gain insight into the traditions and cultures of other peoples.
In my experience of working with many gifted and inspired teachers during 24 years in Oregon, I have come to believe that history classes in elementary and junior high school should not be regarded as a substitute for two years of history for senior high students.
Older students are in a stronger intellectual position to understand concepts which illuminate any serious study of the past. When high school seniors are legally qualified to vote within a few months of graduation, if not in that final year for some, we want them to vote for their future with their minds and hearts--not with indifferent emotions.
Vaughan is executive director of the Oregon Historical Society.
The Sunday Oregonian, Portland, July 2, 1978, page C1
Last revised September 29, 2012