Why Do We Study History? Lessons learned from an 8th grade Open House
by Amy Haines, Graduate Student in History, UCCS
There are times when as a historian I question why I want to be one. The questions I ask myself usually revolve around the larger issues like: is there room in the scholarship for one more voice? Will anyone care about what I have to say? Do I have anything of note to contribute?
So as I sat at my 8th grader’s middle school open house listening to his American Studies teacher introduce her methods, I was open-minded and intrigued to hear her insights into this field of which I have decided to devote myself. To my utter surprise, those haunting, deeply personal questions about my purpose as a historian were suddenly wiped away. Completely grateful to all middle school educators for their decision to teach children, mine included, during those awkward pre-teen and teen years, I was nevertheless faced with some sobering truths about public education and how History as a subject is viewed.
The apology came first: the text was not new, and the district could not afford to replace it, so the class would have to make do. Any parent with a child in the public school system knows this is usually the case, yet the apology also came with the rationalization that American History (the early stories of the foundation of the original colonies, the Declaration of Independence, and the Westward expansion of the country, etc.) hasn’t changed, so using a textbook published in the early 1980s was perfectly acceptable. I kept my mouth shut, as I do know the proper place for a scholarly debate is not at a middle school open house, but it was with growing trepidation that I continued to follow the presentation.
The teacher went on to explain that her class was a survey class, a broad overview of American Studies (from the founding of the first colonies, up through the Civil War) that would give the children a taste of their country’s past. This helped to ease the discomfort with the textbook knowing that Jamestown was afforded only a half-page (about 150 words), and the text had room only for the largest United States’ historical actors. This was after all middle school, not college, and to think otherwise would be disastrous.
However, the end of the teacher’s presentation floored me. She asked the rhetorical question, “So why do we study this?” meaning History with a capital “H”. I immediately perked up. Maybe she knew some secret truth about the deeper meaning of historical study. Would she say something of profound insight? Instead, she said it was because the children would encounter history classes in high school, and in college, and would need this subject for the TCAPs (which are the new standardized tests the state of Colorado administers). There was no deeper meaning behind her words, no mysteriously cloaked message of a higher purpose to impart.
And it was then that I realized why I am a historian. I am a historian because each child that learns about American History from an outdated textbook, or is taught to believe that the study of history is only a grudging requirement for academic purposes, is being short-changed. The history of our country is complicated, so chillingly complicated, that certainly there must be a parceling-out of that knowledge or a student would be overwhelmed. But, to negate the reasons for studying our nation’s past by not giving a better justification of why we study it is terrifying.
I hope my sons will someday appreciate why their historian mother made the effort to provide a fuller historical picture for them, countering the arguments presented in their limited school texts with each homework assignment. If nothing else, the lesson I learned at school (albeit my son’s middle school) is that as a historian, sometimes it isn’t the big philosophical questions that matter, but the small, everyday questions that are critical. That it is important to convey that History is not singular, but plural. That point-of-view matters. That History is a constantly evolving field, dependent upon curious scholars. That History is more than old textbooks full of the long-dead; History is also our future. And that is why we study History.
August 31, 2012