Facts, subjects and themes are important. But ask me whether our students must have a particular historical fact set about our state, country—or others, for that matter—and my answer will be that we are asking the wrong question. To frame the efficacy of history in terms of facts remembered and test scores achieved misses what is valuable about historical study. The value of history is as much in its process as it is in its outcomes.
Test scores do not make or break you as a historian.
The process of historical inquiry—and what it teaches students along the way—is history’s greatest reward. Studying history teaches that society is not stagnant. Studying history teaches us to question how and why things change, who drives those changes, whose interests are served by them and who gets left out of the equation. History teaches that human actions have consequences.
Analysis of past events teaches students to ask probing questions, challenge preconceived assumptions and to recognize that humans have the capacity to be both very, very good and very, very cruel.
Analyzing historic documents teaches us to be careful readers. To be skeptical of one side of the story. To be aware of our own biases. Most critically, history teaches us who we are. I am a Scot-Irish, a Texan, a citizen of the United States, teaching Louisiana history and loving it. These identities mean nothing without a historical backdrop to set them against. “We swim in the past as fish do in water,” wrote historian Eric Hobsbawm. “We cannot escape from it.”
Our students may not go on to all be historians, or even remember the hundreds of facts they learn in a given year. But through history they can become more disciplined and rigorous thinkers. They can be challenged to be more independent-minded analysts, and, I would argue, more compassionate human beings—skills that historical study inculcates and that lead directly to life and career success.
The best reason to study history is not to memorize facts, but rather to experience the historical process and learn to interpret facts in a thoughtful, independent and meaningful manner. If we are to continue to foster national greatness and prepare students to independently assess an increasingly complex world, we should continue to promote such thinking.
On the surface, history may seem less in need of such help than, say, physics. But we should not assume that history needs no help communicating itself. I am currently working with writers, scholars, journalists, student teachers, mentors and public historians—to convene a series of workshops and develop teaching new ways to communicate history and historical concepts to non-experts.
Through these and similar efforts we historians have an opportunity to better espouse history’s value and ensure we don’t fall behind in producing outstanding, independent thinkers who have the confidence to draw their own conclusions. The current concerns over history curricula may be opportunities to voice that message more clearly.
I believe that we must not be afraid to separate history from myth, fact from fantasy. Perhaps the best reason to study history is to understand what humans are capable of doing to one another—and how we have the capacity to correct such injustices. That is a valuable lesson for any student, this back-to-school season and beyond.