If we don't know our history, we're history
Survey after survey, national test after national test indicate a striking ignorance of history by our younger generations. This is due, in part, to a trend in education beginning in the 20th century that has disparaged and diminished the importance of academic "knowledge" in schools in favor of "process” oriented learning. Additionally, the nationwide assessment of certain skills and subjects in school such as reading, writing, math and, more lately, science has further relegated the other core subject area of history to a secondary status, especially in the elementary grades. Every American should be concerned about this lack of historical knowledge as history is one of the main agents that binds our nation together and teaches us essential life lessons.
What is history? Too many people think of history as merely a story—and it is often taught and received as a boring one at that. Don’t get me wrong, storytelling is essential and humans are made to tell and listen to good stories, but history is more than a story and should be appreciated and learned by everyone. The French natural law philosopher Etienne Gilson said the following about it: "History is the only laboratory we have in which to test the consequences of thought."
This is an interesting way to speak about history, isn't it? A couple of words in the quote really stand out and appear more likely to be used in another setting, science. For instance, Gilson said history is a laboratory. Laboratories are places where experiments are held and where people with white lab coats and safety goggles work, right?
In science laboratories, items are tested, but in the history lab the focus of the test is ideas or thoughts, and the consequences of those ideas are the important discoveries. We should all be concerned with the consequences of thought because as one saying goes: "Thoughts become words, words become actions, actions become habits, habits become character, and character becomes destiny."
Every time I ask people, including teachers, about the original meaning of the word history they typically say "history means ‘his’ story," or they will say it simply means "story." But if you look at the Greek root meaning of the word history, you might be surprised to learn it means "inquiry" or "investigation" and "knowledge." Did you know the Latin word for science, scientia, also means investigation and knowledge? History and science are synonymous, at least in the original context of the words. Having this in mind, Gilson's quote makes more sense. History should not be boring or passive but instead an active exercise involving investigation and, ultimately, the acquisition of important knowledge that benefits individual lives and civilizations.
Generally speaking, history is one of the greatest teachers we have, but there are three specific points I would like to emphasize about its importance to us as a people. First, in Western societies, history has always been a main topic of study and has provided a springboard to the study of other subjects such as literature; it has also been a source for work on skills such as reading and writing. In terms of successful literacy development, history provides students with a wealth of conceptual knowledge that enables them to become good readers, and because reading is essential to overall academic success, history instruction should be at the top of educational priorities.
Reading requires knowledge of "words and the world," to borrow a phrase from educational researcher E.D. Hirsch, and there is no area of study that does a better job of providing this type of knowledge than history. In our nation, we have major problems with literacy at the middle school and high school levels, and this is due, in large part, to students' lack of knowledge, not the lack of reading skills (assuming students learn phonics). Too often, instructors teach students how to learn to read in the early grades, but fall short in providing them with the important academic knowledge that enables them to read to learn later on. In order to read to learn, you need to have a rich vocabulary. For example, reading experts estimate that in order to understand what you are reading, you need to know approximately 90 percent of the words and concepts in a passage so you can figure out the other 10 percent you do not know. Learning history helps provide students with the vocabulary and contextual knowledge they need to become advanced readers.
A second benefit of the study of history lies in the connection between history and good character or virtue. The Roman historian Tacitus wrote: "The task of history is to hold out for condemnation every evil word and deed, and to hold out for praise every great and noble word and deed." Examples of character may or may not exist in a child's immediate environment or even in the memories of a parent, but they do live on in the annals of history as suggested by Tacitus. In the history of our nation, we can see examples of virtue in the courage and sacrifice of the founders of this nation during the Revolutionary era, in the fortitude of the reformers of the Second Great Awakening, in the creativity and perseverance of the inventors, writers and scientists who helped make this nation great, and so on. Students can learn from and become motivated by great ideas and great actions and find in the heroic men and women of the past important role models.
One of the modern trends in education has been the rise of character education programs or courses in values, whatever values means. Supporters of these types of programs point to increasing incidents of violence in schools, a general lack of civility and a lack of civic participation by our youth. I submit we do not need classes in values but, instead, we need good courses in history and literature, another excellent source of historical knowledge and lessons in human nature.
A final point about the importance of history pertains to our heritage—history is the key transmitter of it. Our American heritage, and the inheritance of Western Civilization, is not passed on to us genetically. It must be learned and earned by each generation. Some of this passing on is done in the home, in churches and other institutions, but an essential source for our historic memory comes from a formal study of history.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the famous Russian philosopher and dissident during the Communist era of the Soviet Union, once warned, "If you wish to destroy a people, you must first sever them from their roots." In order to preserve the good and true elements of our culture, we must have a historic memory, we must work in earnest to safeguard our historic roots.
This article originally appeared in the Daytona Beach News-Journal / COMMUNITY VOICE section on November 09, 2008. Since then, it has been slightly by the author, Jason Caros.