“To understand history is to understand humanity.”
Last month I launched my first contest ever to give away some very cool infographic posters from Periodic Presidents that combine the periodic table with presidential history. I’d like to thank everyone who participated — I really enjoyed reading your entries about your own experiences with the value of teaching history.
The two runner-ups will each receive one “The Periodic Table of the Presidents” 24” x 36” poster and one “The Periodic Table of Presidential Elections” 24” x 36” poster, and the winner will receive two of each.
In the contest, I asked you to describe the value of teaching history and/or science. You delivered. Here are the winning entries.
Runner Up David Mano:
The Value of Teaching History
To determine the value of teaching history is to apply value to something invaluable. It’s to try and apply parameters to something of infinite meaning, as the meaning of it changes vastly from person to person. To learn about history is to connect, connect to the earth and connect to human beings from centuries past, to analyze their lives and their choices only to discover that we ourselves are hardly any different. To teach about history is to teach about the future, and to help people understand both their own pasts and everything that came together to make the world as it is.
To understand history is to understand oppression, revolution, terror, love, and ultimately the human experience. It’s to think about figures that some might only see as long-dead, as only marble statues, as people. People that once lived and breathed, with flaws and errors just like ourselves. It’s to understand that each breath we take is the same breath as Plato, Robespierre, Alexander, Caesar, John Adams. It’s to chip away at the marble statue and reveal the human beneath.
The importance of teaching history is immeasurable, for to teach history is to awaken people to a rainbow of human experiences. It’s to remind people that for all the horror, all the war and all the slavery, there were still people that lived and loved, mothers that protected their children, youth that sacrificed everything for a better world, people that worked and people that suffered and people that lived. To understand history is to understand humanity.
Runner Up Celeste McCall:
George Santayana once said, ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” His words seem more important today than ever before as we watch our current political climate crumble into a scene that most of us should recognize from our history books. History is arguably the most important subject taught in our schools, but it is so often pushed to the sidelines and written off as “boring.”
History has always been important to me. Long before I started school I was already learning the stories of my ancestors and the tragic fates that most of them met. As someone who is half Cherokee, it has always been important to me that History is taught correctly in schools across the country. This isn’t just because I’ve often seen the history of Native Americans taught so incorrectly, but because it’s happening to everyone’s history, no matter who they are.
I attend a high school that is not rated very well when compared to other schools across the state, and the state itself isn’t the best for any education level below college. It would be so easy to blame these factors on our poor grasp of History, but it’s happening everywhere. People have come to think of History as too messy. History is messy! But we should take that mess and figure out ways to keep it from reoccurring. History is our most valuable tool when it comes to navigating the future, and we should use this tool to check ourselves so we don’t destroy ourselves in the future. That is why learning from History is so important to me.
Winner Ron DeGregorio:
As a teacher, I have had the privilege of teaching in both a high-poverty urban school, and a prospering wealthy suburban school. These schools could not have been any more different from each other in terms of demographics, political leanings, quality of infrastructure or educational and extracurricular opportunities. Even though these schools could have been thousands of miles apart, they were separated by less than 20 miles.
When my students critically analyze the differences between the two schools I’ve taught in, and the experiences of students within those schools, and then trace the historical roots of those circumstances, history becomes more than just a subject in school, but rather an experience they are actively engaging in. As one historian puts it, “History is not just stuff that happens by accident…Yet here we are all together, the products of that set of choices, and we have to understand that.” The value of teaching history is to open the eyes of students to the world around them, and to help them discover the path we as Americans have walked together through time to find ourselves where we are today.
History paints the world by giving context to the actions and circumstances students encounter. It allows for understanding of each other and for the development of empathy towards our fellow man. As one of my favorite song lyrics explains, “The past is just the future with the lights on.” History can guide students into the future by collectively understanding and exploring the past, and for students today, in a world full of partisan divide, new and unique challenges like modern civil rights struggles, the onslaught of fake news, and new conflicts with old adversaries, could there be a more important topic to learn as a student, or to teach as a teacher?
Honorable Mention: Mike Purdy
I have to call out one honorable mention from presidential historian and author Mike Purdy who runs PresidentialHistory.com. He wrote:
In our modern world, why should we be concerned about teaching history to emerging generations when they can simply look up any fact they need to know when they need to know it?
At its core, history is human drama. It is the story of how real people made decisions in real time not knowing how things would turn out for them. History is the story of conflict and compromise. There are three major reasons why we should teach history.
First, teaching and knowing history cultivates a sense of wisdom. History is the best teacher so each generation doesn’t mindlessly repeat the errors of the past. History informs our collective thinking with insights from the past about how to solve the seemingly intractable problems of today.
Second, teaching history builds and cements a common bond with our fellow citizens in an age in which pervasive individualization is breaking down community and the need for creating a society based on the common good. As such, teaching history is one of our best hopes of protecting our fragile and polarized republic by ensuring that emerging generations understand our institutions and how we got to where we are today.
Finally, teaching history helps remind students of our shared humanity and inevitable mortality – that despite the intensity of living in the moments of our lives, we are part of a larger story unfolding on this planet and in our nation. With such an understanding, perhaps we might lean into the “better angels of our nature” and begin to treat others – even those with whom we disagree politically – with civility and respect.
When history is taught well, it encourages the development of critical thinking skills that has benefits that spill over into all of life.
I loved hearing from people passionate about history and sharing it. As I read and write more here and on the Facebook page, I’m becoming more and more fascinated with the history of how we study history and how technology has led to advancements in both accessibility to primary sources and the proliferation of mistruths.
It’s encouraging to see folks out there who love digging into the truth and humanity of our history, and it’s a pleasure to be with you on this journey.