"When the people fear the government, there is tyranny. When the government fears the people, there is liberty."
~ Thomas Jefferson

In 1998, historian Peter Stearns elaborated on this question to begin an essay to answer it. He wrote:
  • "People live in the present. They plan for and worry about the future. History, however, is the study of the past. Given all the demands that press in from living in the present and anticipating what is yet to come, why bother with what has been? Given all the desirable and available branches of knowledge, why insist—as most American educational programs do—on a good bit of history? And why urge many students to study even more history than they are required to?"

Rather than include Stearns' essay in full (see it at teachinghistory.org), I decided to share a number of smaller articles from renowned historians where they share "why history?"

Enlarging the Experience of Being Alive

DAVID McCULLOUGH

Somewhere pretty early, at about age eight I would guess, I discovered that in books I could go back in time. The earliest I remember reading were about Daniel Boone and Abraham Lincoln and a mouse that lived in Ben Franklin’s hat. The first book I ever bought on my own was a Modern Library edition of Richard Henry Dana's Two Years Before The Mast, which I have still on a shelf where I work. “The 14th of August [1834] was the day fixed upon for the sailing of the brig Pilgrim," it begins. I was fifteen — I know from the flyleaf where, with my name, I recorded proudly the date of purchase, May 8, 1949. This, I can’t help thinking, was perhaps a date “fixed upon” for me for a sailing of a kind. . . .

History is about life. That’s its pull. The supposedly dead past is nothing of the kind. Measured beside the present, it is the greater part of human experience by far. Who were those people who braved the storm, who left their marks on cave walls, and in revolutionary mathematical theory? What was it like to travel the America Audubon saw? Or to be Gershwin in Paris? Can we ever know enough about the ways the world changed in 1917? Or 1945?

I would no more wish to shut myself off from the past than to stay rooted always in the same place. One reads history, just as one travels, primarily to enlarge and intensify the experience of being alive. That really is it, I think; that and the exhilaration of much of the finest writing we have.

Twice winner of the National Book Award, David McCullough is currently writing a biography of Harry S. Truman. He is also host of the television series American Experience.



A Larger Reality

PAUL GAGNON

The value of history — that is, of our knowing and understanding as much of it as we can—may be summed up in three phrases: it matures us; it heartens us; it sets us free. How do we grow in maturity, to understand the human condition and ourselves? First, of course, by direct personal experience — in the family, in school, on the street, at work and play, from our own joy and pain. But second, we grow by extending our experiences. Through history, biography, memoirs, imaginative literature, we can know, to some extent, what it meant to be a slave, or fight the battle of Verdun, or work the coal mines, or endure the Holocaust. We can enter a larger reality, place ourselves in time, compare ourselves with others. Indeed we may come to understand what "otherness" — a prime fruit of maturity — means.

The wider experience of history is not always cheerful. But neither will it justify despair. We come to understand what no other study makes so clear: the reality of both tragedy and comedy, of paradox, and of the beauty of work well done, of daily acts of human nurture. We observe how hard it has always been to build and keep civilization, or to better human life. But we also observe that these have nonetheless been done by brave people in the past. While history denies us the easy comforts of optimism and pessimism, it gives heartening proof that effort is not always in vain.

Finally, the study of history, more than any other discipline, frees us to choose for ourselves the paths we wish to take as citizens and as private persons. The dignity of free choice can arise only out of knowing the alternatives possible in public and private life, that immense range of approaches people have taken to order their political, economic, and social lives, to pursue personal integrity, creativity, and private happiness. Without historical memory, we are amnesiacs [def: people without a sense of our past], prisoners of our immediate milieu [or sphere], ignorant of the possibilities for liberation that the past reveals. The first aim of education in a democracy is to confer upon as many people as possible the power to freely choose for themselves. The study of history is the precondition to that power, and to our free search for the larger meaning of human history and life.

Paul Gagnon is Executive Secretary of the National Council for History Education.



The Best Guide We Have

WILLIAM H. McNEILL

History tells us who we are and how to behave. Much of it is informal, taking the form old stories and personal memories passed on from parents to children and from veterans to newcomers in all sorts of small, local groups. This is the way we shape private life, learning who we are and what we should do in new situations. Past successes and mistakes guide behavior and make choices comparatively easy. Without this sort of private, informal history, no one would know what to expect or what to do. We would not be human.

The sort of history taught in schools and written about in books does the same thing for our public identities. We learn what it is to be an American by reading about what the United States govemment and what other Americans have done in the past; and we learn what it is to share in other public identities by reading about the history of localities, occupational groups, genders, peoples, churches, civilizations, and humanity as a whole. And transmitted memory of former successes and mistakes is just as important for guiding behavior on the public level as on the private. Leaders frame the issues and choose policies in light of what they know and believe about past triumphs and defeats of the group in question, and followers either concur [agree] or dissent [disagree] (in which latter case [if they dissent] the group loses power and vigor, and, in extreme cases, may even dissolve).

Quite simply, human life depends on past experience to give it coherence and meaning. The past is all we have. But everything depends on what aspects of the past we choose to remember, because a total recall is impossible. This is where historians (and, for informal, private history, tale-tellers) come into their own. They organize and simplify the record of the past so that it can be remembered. This means leaving things out, and when new situations and new identities arise, revisionist historians correct the portrait of the past by leaving out some of the things their predecessors thought important and by putting in new data appropriate to new demands.

History is therefore a living discipline, reflecting every pulsation of public life, as well as the nuances of everyone's private experience. It provides the best guide we have to effective action. No matter how carefully studied, history is not a very good guide. Witness the innumerable surprises and disappointments of human life. But it is all we have, and as such is endlessly fascinating, offering a persistently ambiguous clue to probable and possible futures.

William H. McNeil is Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Chicago.



History Permeates Our Lives

JOHN EISENHOWER

History — the relating of events past to the preset — permeates our everyday lives, more so than most of us realize. Every holiday is a memorial to an event or a person; every baseball statistic a little piece of history. Today, concerned that the Persian Gulf [or Afghanistan] might become another Vietnam, we ask, “Will history repeat itself?"

Yet most people, when asked if they enjoy the study of history, will respond negatively; probably because of the uninspired and sometimes biased way in which it was presented to them in school. It was not all the fault of the pedagogues [def: teachers - strict ones]; with so much material to cover, they faced a difficult task in trying to make the story of the past come to life, to seem applicable to the present.

To some professions history is a major tool. The soldier, the statesman, and the economist (to name only three) depend on the study of the past as a guide to their approaches to current situations. To these people, the adage "The Past is Prologue," emblazoned on the front of the National Archives in Washington, D.C., is very real.

Those of us who can be called history “buffs,” however, simply enjoy the delight of re-living the experiences of those who have gone before us. Their stories make good reading. And history can be part of our everyday lives. For example, an appreciation of the past can make an automobile trip rewarding. A drive from my home on Maryland’s eastern shore to some place in the Carolinas can take me by such places as Mount Vernon, Monticello, Fredericksburg, Appomattox, Williamsburg, and Jamestown. Drudgery can become adventure.

The amateur historian knows there are pitfalls. It can be a lonely hobby. Our friends often consider us a bit weird, and we must not flaunt our secret discoveries in their presence. But it is also broadening. History shows us how many ways one subject or event can be viewed, depending on one's perspective. We learn not to be too contemptuous [def: judgemental] of the mistakes made by some historical figure who, in his or her own way, was trying to accomplish something.

So damn the constraints! Let’s read history for the pleasure it brings us and for the way it enriches our lives.

John Eisenhower is the author of So Far From God: The War Between the United States and Mexico, I846-1848.



Fate and Its Consequences

T.H.WATKINS

We live in accelerated times, when the witchery of bytes and bits and megabits and all the other paraphernalia [def: miscellaneous stuff] of electronic communication enables us to make mistakes faster than we can correct them. Fashions in clothing, music, literature, movies, diets, and psychotherapy come and go at a dizzying pace. Politicians build careers on the assumption that the attention span of the American people has been reduced to the few minutes it takes to read an airline magazine article. Nations are convulsed overnight; ideologies [def: systems of ideas and ideals] die in hours and others rise to take their places; walls come down and walls are built in the space of time it takes to write about them.

In such a world, one is asked, of what use is history? How can we indulge the luxury of the time and thought it takes to comprehend the complicated weave of any past that is more distant than yesterday afternoon when it often seems that all the psychic and intellectual energy we possess must be reserved just to maintain our present equilibrium [balance] — especially when we continue to live in so dangerous a world that the future may never arrive at all?

To such questions, I would answer this: From the unrecorded eons of its beginnings to the overrecorded moments of its present living, humankind has been sustained not merely by its intelligence but by its capacity to hope. lt was hope that drove the first neolithic peoples to follow the climate south from the bitter descending edge of the lce Age; hope that brought the first settlers to the brave new world of the North American continent; hope that enabled thousands to survive even the Holocaust — surely the most fetid [def: disgusting and foul] demonstration we have yet been given that savagery is as singular a human characteristic as charity.

Unlike intelligence, the quality of hope is not genetically programmed into the species; it is a learned characteristic. Like any acquired trait, it can be lost, and without hope we are left with the arid uselessness of nihilism [def: belief that life is meaningless] — the darkest corner of an existential state that sees neither value nor possibility in the future.

I would insist that the study and remembrance of history remains one of the best ways available to us for nurturing the protocols of hope. How can we not discover hope when we remember the impossible triumph of the "rabble in arms" that challenged Britain in 1776, or the unlikely melding of minds, interests, convictions, prejudices, and angers that produced the Constitution of the United States in 1789 and the Bill of Rights that followed it? Is it anything less than hope that we find in the story of the men and women who endured the trials of the westering that filled a continent, or in the unspeakable bravery of black men and women who not only endured bigotry but rose up to give new voice, new substance, and new glory to the idea of freedom?

In these clays when the shadow of ruin falls on us it is good to remember that ours is not the first generation to face economic strife and potential war or the constant testing of the strengths that were designed to make ours the first nation in history to be truly “of the people." In that history there is hope, and in that hope there is a shield against fate and its consequences that can serve us now just as faithfully as it has in the past.

T. H. Watkins is editor of Wilderness magazine and a former senior editor of American Heritage magazine. His numerous books include Righteous Pilgrim: The Life and Times of Harold L Ickes, one of five nonfiction Finalists for the 1990 National Book Award.



Tree Slices of History

ALEX HALEY

The graphic meaning and value of history began for me on the morning of my fourth birthday. My parents and grandparents gave me a thick slice from a redwood tree, containing about fifteen small square white markers at different places. My teacher-father, using a pointer, identified the tree’s annual growth rings and then explained that each little white marker represented an event that had happened when the tree was that age.

That morning, I first heard such words as “Emancipation Proclamation” and "slavery" and " “Civil War," along with the birth year of my maternal great-great-grandfather “Chicken George," and the founding year of Lane College in Jackson, Tennessee, where my parents later met as students — and so on.
My "tree-slice" made history for me something that I could feel and touch, and gradually I became immersed in reading (which was my elders’ objective), ever seeking new historical events that might qualify for an added cardboard marker on my tree-slice of history. By the time I reached the age of ten, my - priority hobby was reading historical books; I truly believe these roots ultimately influenced me toward becoming a self-taught writer whose favorite theme is historical dramas, notably featuring my own ancestry.

The intrigue of history that was unfolded for me as a child has become a man's umbilical [def: relating to the internal] awareness that the things we do today are involuntarily the history of tomorrow. To paraphrase George Santayana, “Unless we learn from history, we are destined to repeat it." This is no longer merely an academic exercise, but may contain our world’s fate and our destiny.

Alex Haley — recipient of the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize — is perhaps best-known as author of the acclaimed book and television series Roots.



Thoughts on Telling History

KEN BURNS

Many of us are brought to our history through story, memory, anecdote. feeling-the emotional connections and glue that make the most complex events in our individual and family lives stick in our minds and hearts, becoming an indelible part of who we are.

In contrast, during most of the life of this republic, our collective history has been presented to us “from the top down.” This approach, called the history of the State or of great men, basically focuses on presidents and wars and generals. It relies on the belief that such history trickles down and touches experiences common to us all. But in fact it rarely does. It exhibits, instead. a certain understandable arrogance.

Earlier generations of Americans were able to make such political history meaningful through its associations with their family memories and community recollections. But as our nation grew larger and older, as people moved around more and lost touch with place, these personal histories began to dry up. We began to forget. The residual history became a kind of castor oil of dates, facts, and events of little meaning — something we knew was good for us but hardly good-tasting. History became just another subject, not the great pageant of everything that has come before this moment.

About twenty or thirty years ago we partially awoke to this problem and began to insist on relevance in our teaching of history and on a new social history focusing on real people doing real and recognizable things. This would be history from the bottom up, not top down, and people would respond.

Instead, relevance became an excuse for not even teaching history. The new social history became so bogged down in statistical demographics and microperceptions that history began to sound like reading a telephone book. A new arrogance — equally understandable but equally devastating to the national memory-replaced the hold. Someone expressed the new tyranny quite well by saying that a history of Illinois could be written without mentioning Abraham Lincoln.

Today, history and its valuable counsel continue to recede in importance and emphasis in schools across the land. The statistics are frightening. A majority of high school seniors cannot identify Joseph Stalin or Winston Churchill. They do not know which came first — the Emancipation Proclamation, the Bill of Rights, or the Declaration of independence. Many think we fought with the Germans against the Russians during the Second World War. And most cannot tell the correct half-century in which the Civil War took place.

Something has to change.

In some ways, that metamorphosis is now under way. Educators and historians have begun to speak of a synthesis of the old and the new histories, of finding a way to combine the best of the top-down version (still inspiring even in its “great men” addiction) with the bottom-up version (equally inspiring with the million heroic acts of women, minorities, labor, and ordinary people).

And we have begun to use new media and new forms of expression — including films and television — to tell our histories, breaking the strangle hold the academicians exercised over this discipline for the last hundred years. Remember, until we adopted the German academic model at the end of the nineteenth century, our greatest historians, like Francis Parkman, were essentially dedicated amateurs, not just a handful of moribund [def: dying] colleagues unconcerned with how one wrote.

Wrote Parkman of the historian's responsibility,
  • “Faithfulness to the truth of history involves far more than a research, however patient and scrupulous [def: diligent], into special facts. Such facts may be detailed with the most minute exactness, and yet the narrative, taken as a whole, may be un-meaning or untrue. The narrator must seek to imbue himself with the life and spirit of the time. He must study events in all their bearings, near and remote: in the character, habits, and manner of those who took part in them. He must himself be, as it were, a sharer or spectator of the action he describes.”

The telling of history, therefore, involves a tension between art and science. The science of history would enumerate the myriad details equally, without discrimination — the telephone book at its worst. The art of history has produced, in recalling the Civil War for example, the film Gone with the Wind (and, worse, Birth of a Nation), as well as recent miniseries television dramas that try to convince us that the conflict was not brother against brother but heaving chest against heaving bosom.

Good history has always struck a balance between these two polarities, neither allowing formal considerations to overwhelm and distort the truth of events nor allowing a dry recitation of fact to render its meaning unintelligible or boring.

In an age of changing media, these dangers and pitfalls become even more critical, requiring us to exercise increasing vigilance and attention if we are to survive as a nation. For it is a question of survival. Without a viable past, we will deprive ourselves of the defining impressions of our being.

Filmmaker Ken Burns's most recent project was the critically acclaimed five part eleven hour television documentary The Civil War.



Why Study History

DIANE RAVITCH

Why study history? The simplest and truest answer is that the study of history makes people more intelligent. History is an investigation of causes; it is a way of finding out how the world came to be as it is. Without history, we are without memory and without explanations. Those who do not know history — their own history and that of their society and other societies — cannot comment intelligently on the causes of events — cannot understand their own lives nor the changes in their society and in the world. The person who knows no history is like an amnesiac, lacking a sense of what happened before and therefore unable to tell the difference between cause and effect.

Unfortunately, many people get the impression from studying history in school with poorly trained teachers and with boring textbooks that history is nothing more than a recitation of dull facts about battles and kings. Sadly, some states certify people to teach social studies who have never studied a single history course in college; and some districts routinely assign coaches with no history education to teach history. And such teachers tend to use the history textbook as a script that students are supposed to memorize and regurgitate.

History ought to be the most exciting course taught in school or college. It ought to be the course that introduces students to great rnen and women who risked their lives for principle or who committed foul deeds for the sake of power. It ought to be the course that arouses heated discussion about historical controversies, with students contesting different versions of the past or disputing the meaning of events. Just as students need to think about the present, they need to think about the past and to realize that it was just as complicated as the present and not a cut-and-dried affair as the textbooks so often imply.

Pick up the newspaper on any day, and the stories presuppose a basic knowledge of history. They refer to events in Eastern Europe or the Soviet Union or Africa or China, assuming that the reader has some knowledge of World War I, World War II, the Russian Revolution, Stalinism, colonialism, imperialism, the postwar decolonization movement, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Solidarity movement, the Chinese revolution, Maoism, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and so on.

The person who his studied history can read the newspapers and magazines with a critical eye; can understand new developments because he or she has a historical context in which to place them; can mentally reject erroneous [def: wrong] statements; and is resistant to indoctrination and propaganda.
When we teach history, we teach not only what happened in the past, but how to reason, how to weigh evidence, how to analyze continuity and change, and how to assess contending ideas. We need the substance of history, and we need the historical thinking that informs rational judgment. We must teach history in elementary schools, junior high schools, senior high schools, colleges, and universities. But that is not enough. We must leach it on the television and in the movies, in museums and libraries, and around the dinner table.

Why study history? To gain the habits of mind and the intellectual tools that are required to be a free person.

Diane Ravitch is Adjunct Professor of History and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Her many books include The American Reader, an anthology of historical American literature.