Why study history? A brief lesson

As teachers, we should be able to justify to our students anything we teach in school.  But it can sometimes be difficult to convey to students why history can be useful.  Perhaps this lesson will help.  It was inspired by an essay from Michael Oakeshott entitled "Present, Future and Past."*


I turn down the lights in my classroom and ask the students to close their eyes and, "Imagine you are at a beach on a sunny day." With your mind's eye, look around you. You see waves lapping at the shore. To your left you see children in colorful swim suits building sand castles, laughing, and splashing in the shallow water. To the right you see a boat dock painted blue with several boats moored alongside. You are living in the present, observing your surroundings and feeling the warmth of the sun on your skin.

After spending some time sitting on the beach, you are becoming hot and  bored, and you begin to think about the future. What will you do next? (At this point, I ask a few students what they will do next. One suggests going into the water.) How did you decide? Based on your past experience you know the water will be cool and refreshing, and playing in the waves will be fun, so you decide to go for a swim. Living in the present, you are making a plan for the future based on your knowledge of the past. The present, the future and the past are always tied together and are always with us.

It's getting later now, and the sun is beginning to set over the water. It's time to think about going home. (I ask a few students to suggest how they will get home, and how they knew they could get home this way.) You know that you arrived at the beach on a boat and that you left the boat tied to the dock. You know how you will get home. This knowledge is comforting, and you decide to stay a while longer and enjoy the sunset. As you can see, your decisions about the future are based on your knowledge of the past.

But, suddenly a cocoanut falls from a tree and knocks you unconscious. You awake with amnesia, remembering nothing of the past. (What are your feelings now? Not so comfortable?) You don't know why you are on a beach, where home is or how to get there. It's getting dark, and you are frightened. You begin to panic because your loss of the past means you are hopelessly lost in trying to cope with the present and the future.

Relax. You will probably never be struck on the head by a falling cocoanut...and you will learn what you need to know about beaches and swimming and getting home from your own personal experience. But, how will you learn of important things that you cannot experience for yourself? How will you learn of the larger world outside your own personal experience?

This is why we have schools, so you can learn from the experiences of others gathered over centuries of human experience. Without this knowledge, you would suffer from a kind of amnesia that leaves you lost when it comes to understanding important matters in your present and your future. For example, why would foreign terrorists want to attack you and other Americans? Should the United States go to war with Iran? Should we try to stop global warming? Should we work for economic justice in the world? Should scientists be allowed to alter human genes?

You live in a free society, in a democracy, where citizens are expected to help decide these kinds of issues and—the truth is—American citizens DO help decide important issues for our country. It was the people, not the government, that brought the Vietnam War to an end. It was the people who led the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, and government followed. The people of the United States, and their elected representatives, will decide if they are willing to support another war in the Middle East or accept global warming.

We all need knowledge from the past—whether it comes from personal experience or from studying history in school. It's the only guide we have for understanding the present and dealing with the future.

March 31, 2016

*Oakeshott, Michael, On History and Other Essays, Liberty Fund, Inc.1999

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