Recently, I came across an interesting piece of writing I have kept since my college days. "Why Study History" by Diane Ravitch was published in American History Illustrated in March/April 1991. I remember debating about getting my Master's Degree in history and reading Ravitch's piece encouraged me to continue with my education.
In her review of history, Ravitch stated that "the simplest and truest answer is that the study of history makes people more intelligent."
Now, at first that may seem like a rather pompous statement. But the fact remains that learning from our past teaches us about our present and future. History makes us more aware of the world around us.
"History is an investigation of causes," Ravitch wrote, "it is a way of finding out how the world came to be as it is. Without history, we are without memory and without explanation."
Imagine experiencing amnesia and not knowing where you come from or where you live. You would have no past and no idea of where you are going.
That is exactly the example Ravitch offered.
"The person who knows no history," she wrote, "is like an amnesiac, lacking a sense of what happened before and therefore unable to tell the difference between cause and effect."
History isn't just facts and names. It's experiences, life stories and emotions. As I wrote in my article "The Van Hoosens: An 1850 Love Story" for Rochester Patch "history is filled with stories of real people who experienced troubles and jubilations, much the way we do today. When we think of the similarities we have with the people of long ago, they don’t seem so different or far away. We share with them feelings of joy, sorrow, celebration, friendship, fun and especially love."
I had a terrible history teacher in high school. She required us to memorize facts, names, events, dates and not much more. It was boring and unproductive. Eyes glazed over and no one paid attention to the real life dramas that had unfolded decades ago -- the fears, joys and grief of people who seemed larger than life, but who were really more like us than we know.
Fortunately, I also had a great civics/history teacher who managed to bring the stories of the past to life. I learned a great deal from him and he inspired me to learn more.
As Ravitch noted, "history ought to be the most exciting course taught in school or college. It ought to be the course that introduces students to great men and women who risked their lives for principle or who committed foul deeds for the sake of power."
She was so right.
For instance, I'm excited about a new research and history project I'm working on for next school year. I'll be working with a team of historians and archaeologists to bring history to life for elementary school kids by teaching them the history of their school using real documents, life stories and lessons in anthropology. This program has been a success in another local school district and I'm excited to bring it to mine. I'll write more about this as the project moves along.
"When we teach history," Ravitch noted, "we teach not only what happened in the past, but how to reason, how to weigh evidence, how to analyze continuity and change, and how to assess contending ideas."
Be resourceful. If your or your child's history teacher isn't making the grade for you, seek someone or something better. Read age-appropriate history books, visit museums, search online for terrific history sites (I'll post a list of my favorites soon) and learn history, as Ravitch wrote, "to gain the habits of mind and the intellectual tools that are required to be a free person."