So many reasons to study history amount to no coherent reason to study history. Fritz Fisher of the University of Northern Colorado was Chair of the National Council for History Education when he observed, “much of the public and even many professional educators do not have a clue about the nature or purpose of history."1

This awkward truth was underscored several years ago when a group of international historians and scholars met in the Netherlands to discuss the future of history education. The official report from that conference noted that participants "diverged significantly" on the various purposes that history teaching should serve.  Attendees frequently cited two competing purposes: education for citizenship and education focused on the discipline of history.

This disagreement over the basic purpose of history education is reflected in American education circles where the National Council for History Education favors intellectual discipline, emphasizing “history's habits of mind,”3 while the National Council for Social Studies believes history should be "education for citizenship."4

These two positions represent a conflict between an inward and an outward focus for historical studies. It's an unresolved dispute with a long history.  Attendees at a 1905 session of the American Historial Association advocated teaching historical thinking and historical methods to first-year college students, but after World War I prompted anxieties about the strength of democratic societies, universities adopted a new emphasis on education for citizenship.5

If historians and history educators can't agree on the purpose of history education, the public can hardly be expected to figure it out either.  But even if every academician in the country were to agree on the purpose of history education tomorrow, this still wouldn't be enough to secure the future of history teaching in America because society imposes a higher standard.  Society expects a school subject to have a useful purpose like math, language, and science have.


Return to "What to Teach and How to Teach It"

     History helps us understand human behavior, world issues, the impact of individuals and groups, the working out of God's purposes, how societies came to be as they are, the significance of the past in shaping the present, how to assess evidence and conflicting interpretations, and how to recognize long-term consequences of actions.  

     History provides identity, empathy, collective memory, instructive examples, a moral sense, social glue, comparative perspectives, a wide range of models and alternatives, a guide to public action, and the materials of future wisdom.  

     History improves judgment, improves reading and writing skills, solves big problems significant to our understanding of ourselves, solves small problems resulting in incremental progress, is essential for good citizenship, is a means for cherishing the past, is useful in the working world, is a species of moral illustration, helps us to appreciate other cultures, helps us negotiate an ambiguous world, supports common understanding and dialogue, enlarges our sense of human capacities, promotes pride in national achievements, promotes patriotism, promotes tolerance, promotes open-mindedness, prepares us for private lives of personal integrity and fulfillment, provides a common political vision, provides a framework for the other humanities, presents possibilities for choice, makes us less ethnocentric, is a weapon against false ideologies, removes provincialism and egotism, develops critical thinking skills, historical thinking skills, and worthy human beings.

     History is an art form, or a science, or both, and history gives pleasure.



(The following is an excerpt from a forthcoming book titled Future-Focused History: Rethinking the Role of History Education in Society, by Mike Maxwell.)


If you listen to its defenders, history education has nearly limitless purposes; it appears to be the panacea for all of society's ills. Here is a partial list of lofty reasons that various people have advanced for the study of history:

Some argued that history should inculcate civic values and ideals of citizenship (from local to national to global).  Others argued instead that history should be taught as an intellectual discipline inculcating historical consciousness and introducing students to rigorous methods of inquiry, but not as a tool for civics education.2



1. Fischer, Fritz, "The Historian as Translator: Historical Thinking, the Rosetta Stone of History Education," Historically Speaking, June, 2011, p. 16

2. Symcox, Linda and Wilschut, Arie, eds., National History Standards: The Problem of the Canon and the Future of Teaching History, Information Age Publishing, 2009, p.6

3. "Core Purpose and History's Habits of Mind," National Council for History Education, Online:, accessed Nov. 26, 2011

4. "A Vision of Powerful Teaching and Learning in the Social Studies: Building Social Understanding and Civic Efficacy," National Council for the Social Studies, Online:, accessed Nov. 26, 2011

5. Sipress, Joel M., Voelker, David J., "The End of the History Survey Course: The Rise and Fall of the Coverage Model," The Journal of American History, Organization of American Historians, March, 2012, pp. 1054, 1056

© 2001-2016 Michael G. Maxwell, Maxwell Learning LLC