Significance of History for the Educated Citizen

Setting standards for history in the schools requires a clear vision of the place and importance of history in the general education of all students. The widespread and growing support for more and better history in the schools, beginning in the early grades of elementary education, is one of the more encouraging signs of the decade. The reasons are many, but none are more important to a democratic society than this: knowledge of history is the precondition of political intelligence. Without history, a society shares no common memory of where it has been, what its core values are, or what decisions of the past account for present circumstances. Without history, we cannot undertake any sensible inquiry into the political, social, or moral issues in society. And without historical knowledge and inquiry, we cannot achieve the informed, discriminating citizenship essential to effective participation in the democratic processes of governance and the fulfillment for all our citizens of the nation’s democratic ideals.

Thomas Jefferson long ago prescribed history for all who would take part in self-government because it would enable them to prepare for things yet to come. The philosopher Etienne Gilson noted the special significance of the perspectives history affords. “History,” he remarked, “is the only laboratory we have in which to test the consequences of thought.” History opens to students the great record of human experience, revealing the vast range of accommodations individuals and societies have made to the problems confronting them, and disclosing the consequences that have followed the various choices that have been made. By studying the choices and decisions of the past, students can confront today’s problems and choices with a deeper awareness of the alternatives before them and the likely consequences of each.

Current problems, of course, do not duplicate those of the past. Essential to extrapolating knowledgeably from history to the issues of today requires yet a further skill, again dependent upon one’s understanding of the past: differentiating between (1) relevant historical antecedents that properly inform analyses of current issues and (2) those antecedents that are clearly irrelevant. Students must be sufficiently grounded in historical understanding in order to bring sound historical analysis to the service of informed decision making.

What is required is mastery of what Nietzsche once termed “critical history” and what Gordon Craig has explained as the “ability, after painful inquiry and sober judgment, to determine what part of history [is] relevant to one’s current problems and what [is] not,” whether one is assessing a situation, forming an opinion, or taking an active position on the issue. In exploring these matters, students will soon discover that history is filled with the high costs of decisions reached on the basis of false analogies from the past as well as the high costs of actions taken with little or no understanding of the important lessons the past imparts.

These learnings directly contribute to the education of the public citizen, but they uniquely contribute to nurturing the private individual as well. Historical memory is the key to self-identity, to seeing one’s place in the stream of time, and one’s connectedness with all of humankind. We are part of an ancient chain, and the long hand of the past is upon us-for good and for ill-just as our hands will rest on our descendants for years to come. Denied knowledge of one’s roots and of one’s place in the great stream of human history, the individual is deprived of the fullest sense of self and of that sense of shared community on which one’s fullest personal development as well as responsible citizenship depends. For these purposes, history and the humanities must occupy an indispensable role in the school curriculum.

Finally, history opens to students opportunities to develop a comprehensive understanding of the world, and of the many cultures and ways of life different from their own. From a balanced and inclusive world history students may gain an appreciation both of the world’s many peoples and of their shared humanity and common problems. Students may also acquire the habit of seeing matters through others’ eyes and come to realize that they can better understand themselves as they study others, as well as the other way around. Historical understanding based on such comparative studies in world history does not require approval or forgiveness for the tragedies either of one’s own society or of others; nor does it negate the importance of critically examining alternative value systems and their effects in supporting or denying the basic human rights and aspirations of all their peoples. Especially important, an understanding of the history of the world’s many cultures can contribute to fostering the kind of mutual patience, respect, and civic courage required in our increasingly pluralistic society and our increasingly interdependent world.

If students are to see ahead more clearly, and be ready to act with judgment and with respect for the shared humanity of all who will be touched by the decisions they as citizens make, support, or simply acquiesce in, then schools must attend to this critical field of the curriculum.