Why Study History?

Posted on December 5, 2008. Filed under: American History |


About 6 years ago, around 2002/3, when I was pastoring our small, elderly church, we did have a youth group that was struggling in many ways. This group of kids seemed to be having a tough time with school, so we started a little bit of a study group to try to motivate them. Also, we knew that in the public school they went to, the view of history, government and economics was a bit too liberal and we wanted to give a different point of view. These are the notes from a couple of those study sessions with the kids.

Lecture 1: Why Study American History?



I. What Is History?

II. Why Study History?


Introduction: Think back in time to when you were a little kid, now go back further. What are your earliest memories? I can remember lying in my crib, looking through the slats; I can remember getting a diaper changed, walking under the table, lying in my father’s arms watching the TV show Rawhide.

            Many people have some bad memories, painful things that have happened in our past. But we also have some pleasant and happy memories. Some of your memories are of very significant, important events that have contributed greatly to who you are. But other memories are of daily stuff, the mundane and routine.  All of your past experiences and your memories are important to you because they have made you into who you are today. You are an individual and have worth and significance, you enjoy life and have plans and dreams for the future.

            What would happen if you woke up tomorrow and could not remember your past? Would that be a good thing or a bad thing? You probably have some things you wish you could forget, but if you forgot everything, did not know who you were or where you came from that would a bad thing. The movie “The Bourne Identity” shows someone who lost his identity and was struggling to find out why bad things were happening in his present! I believe that our past, even the painful memories, can be used to make us stronger and better. Our memories are not just useful, they are essential. To have amnesia is a bad thing. To forget our past is a bad thing.

            If it is bad for a person to forget his past and not understand why things are happening in his present, then it is a magnified evil for a nation or people to forget their past.

            George Will writes JWR 12-26-02

The 9/11 summons to seriousness ended the nation’s 1990s holiday from history, and even the National Endowment for the Humanities has enlisted in the war. Emphasizing that historical illiteracy threatens homeland security — people cannot defend what they cannot define — the NEH’s chairman, Bruce Cole, is repairing the ravages of the 1990s, when his two immediate predecessors made the NEH frivolous.

Cole, author of 14 books, many on the Renaissance, was for 29 years professor of fine arts, art history and comparative literature at Indiana University. One of his missions is to reverse America‘s deepening amnesia, and especially the historical illiteracy of college students.

Fresh evidence of the latter came last week from the National Association of Scholars, whose members defend academic standards against the depredations of those levelers who, rigorous only in applying the hedonistic calculus (see above), are draining rigor from curricula. A survey sponsored by the association, using questions on general cultural knowledge originally asked by the Gallup Organization in 1955, establishes that today’s college seniors score little — if any — higher than 1955 high school graduates.

In his office in the Old Post Office on Pennsylvania Avenue, Cole says of the war on terrorism, “What we fight for is part of what we do around here.”

What the NEH aims to help do is “make good citizens.” And “scholarship should be the basis of all we do.” Not all scholars are professors. David McCullough, the historian and biographer, is not an academic. But, then, neither were Thucydides and Gibbon.

“A wise historian,” says McCullough, “has said that to try to plan for the future without a sense of the past is like trying to plant cut flowers.”

Mona Charen writes in JWR 12-24-02:

Two recent surveys show that Americans are getting dumber (Ok, not dumber … more ignorant) with every passing year. The National Association of Scholars commissioned a study on general knowledge and found that today’s college seniors score below those of the 1950s in one key area: history. In fact, today’s college students scored below high-schoolers of the 1950s. Asked, “In what country was the battle of Waterloo fought?” only 3 percent of college seniors answered correctly (Belgium), as opposed to 44 percent of 1950s high-school graduates. Only 53 percent of today’s college students could correctly identify the profession “associated with Florence Nightingale.” In the 1950s, 87 percent of high school grads knew the correct answer (nursing). Seventy-eight percent of today’s college seniors knew that the Purple Heart is the decoration awarded to those wounded in combat, but 90 percent of high-schoolers knew it in the 1950s.

More than a third of respondents were unable to identify the document that outlines the division of power in our government. Eight percent picked “the Marshall Plan,” 2 percent chose “the Declaration of Independence,” and 26 percent said “the Articles of Confederation.” Only 60 percent correctly checked “the Constitution.” That same 60 percent knew that the Civil War was fought between 1850 and 1900. But 26 percent thought it took place between 1800 and 1850, and 10 percent said it happened between 1750 and 1800. Only 29 percent knew to what the term “Reconstruction” referred — i.e., “Readmission of the Confederate states and the protection of the rights of black citizens.” Fifty-nine percent believed it was “Repairing the physical damage caused by the Civil War,” and 8 percent thought it referred to “Payments of European countries’ debts to the United States after the First World War.”

More? OK, asked which of the following nations was an ally of the United States in World War II, 18 percent said Germany; 9 percent said Japan (!), 48 percent said (correctly) the Soviet Union, and 24 percent said Italy. Asked what the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was about, 43 percent guessed that it “ended the war in Korea.” Only 29 percent knew that it permitted President Lyndon to expand the war in Vietnam.

But precisely because we are such a diverse nation and so welcoming to immigrants, teaching history, more than anything else, instills a sense of nationhood. If you don’t even know Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address or Washington’s Farewell, if the sacrifices and hardships of the western pioneers slip down the memory hole, if the clash of civilizations between the Europeans and American Indians is not honestly related, if the flu epidemic of 1918 is not studied and mourned, if the unity and courage of the World War II generation is not known, if the civil rights struggle is forgotten, who are we?

Our history defines us, even if we are first generation Americans. Because the history of this nation is the history of liberty, imperfectly achieved to be sure, but steadily strived for and calling up mighty sacrifices from our ancestors.

To languish in ignorance of that history is a kind of sacrilege.


History is the witness that testifies to the passing of time; it illumines reality, vitalizes memory, provides guidance in daily life and brings us tidings of antiquity.

Cicero </quotes/Cicero/> (106 BC – 43 BC), Pro Publio Sestio

Hegel was right when he said that we learn from history that man can never learn anything from history.

George Bernard Shaw </quotes/George_Bernard_Shaw/> (1856 – 1950)

History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history we made today.

Henry Ford </quotes/Henry_Ford/> (1863 – 1947), Interview in Chicago Tribune, May 25th, 1916

For four-fifths of our history, our planet was populated by pond scum.

J. W. Schopf

History never looks like history when you are living through it.

John W. Gardner </quotes/John_W._Gardner/> (1912 – ), quoted by Bill Moyers

A man’s feet should be planted in his country, but his eyes should survey the world.

George Santayana

Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. In the first stage of life the mind is frivolous and easily distracted; it misses progress by failing in consecutiveness and persistence. This is the condition of children and barbarians, in which instinct has learned nothing from experience.

George Santayana, The Life of Reason, Volume 1, 1905

I. What Is History?

            History is the collective memory of a people or culture; the sum total of all the events that have occurred in the past; history is the story of man. Most of human history has been lost, forgotten. Recorded history is the written story of man. The word history comes from the ancient Greeks and means inquiry. Rosalind Thomas writes in the Introduction to The Histories of Herodotus, p.xxi, “Nicknamed the ‘father of history’ by Cicero, Herodotus is indeed the ancestor of later historians. While his methods fall short of those expected from scholars today, his search for a reliable version of the past, sifted from many sources (including eyewitness accounts) and centered on humans rather than on gods, is the beginning of all critical study of the past. The Histories are not easy to categorize, for they encompass geography, ethnography and biology, wrought together by a consummate story-teller; and in the centuries after Herodotus, historians inclined more towards linear political narrative in the manner of Thucydides, who became the dominant model. Yet without the example of his great predecessor, Thucydides could not have achieved what he did. When Herodotus began his work, the genre of history writing as such did not exist, and for the original audience of the fifth century BC, his writing, however diffuse, must have presented a picture of their past far more coherent, more ordered and more detailed than any they could have known before.” And, (p.xxv) “One of his intentions in writing The Histories seems to have been to preserve the memories of past achievements before they were erased by time.” Introduction to The Histories by Herodotus, Everyman’s Library, Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 1997. 

            Websters: historia- inquiry, from istor- knowing, learned. 1) Tale, story; 2) a) a chronological record of significant events (as affecting a nation or institution) often including an explanation of their causes. b) a treatise presenting systematically related natural phenomena d) an established record 3) a branch of knowledge that records and explains past events. 4a) events that form the subject matter of a history, b) events of the past.

            YOU have a personal history. All of your daily decisions, activities or events are compiling a record. Much of what you do is remembered by others- they write in their minds a history of you, they evaluate you for good or ill. Your school has a history of you-how? Your doctor and dentist have records of you; you will have a job history and a credit history. If you mess up and get a traffic ticket or worse, get arrested, you will have a police record- a legal history. Your personal history is the story of your life and decisions. Live it well!

            Axiom: If it is bad for a person to forget his past and not understand why things are happening in his present, then it is a magnified evil for a nation or people to forget their past.

            Here are what a couple of ancient historians said about their writing of history:

            (Herodotus-p.5 “These are the researches of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, which he publishes, in the hope of thereby preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done, and of preventing the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the Barbarians from losing their due meed of glory; and withal to put on record what were their grounds of feud.“)

            (Polybius, 200-118bc, The Rise of the Roman Empire  writes in his introduction “certainly mankind possesses no better guide to conduct than the knowledge of the past…The Romans, on the other hand, have brought not just mere portions but almost the whole of the world under their rule, and have left an empire which far surpasses any that exists today or is likely to succeed it. In the course of this work  I shall explain more clearly how this supremacy was acquired, and it will also become apparent what great advantages those who are fond of learning can enjoy from the study of serious history…history becomes an organic whole: the affairs of Italy and of Africa are connected with those of Asia and of Greece, and all events bear a relationship and contribute to a single end.” p44″Just as Fortune has steered almost all the affairs of the world in one direction and forced them to converge upon one and the same goal, so it is the task of the historian to present to his readers under one synoptical view the process by which she has accomplished this general design. It was this phenomenon above all which originally attracted my attention and encouraged me to undertake my task.” p.80 “I have recorded these events in the hope that the readers of this history may profit from them, for there are two ways by which all men may reform themselves, either by learning from their own errors or from those of others; the former makes a more striking demonstration, the latter a less painful one. For this reason we should never, if we can avoid it, choose the first, since it involves great dangers as well as great pain, but always the second, since it reveals the best course without causing us harm. From this I conclude that the best education for the situations of actual life consists of the experience we acquire from the study of serious history. For it is history alone which, without causing harm, enables us to judge what is the best course in any situation or circumstance.”


II. Why Study History?

            Why go to school at all? Most kids don’t like school, except for the social life it gives them, but the actual studying and learning and testing process is not enjoyed by many. If kids had a real choice of staying home and watching TV and playing video games or of going to school and working, what do you think their choice would be?________________

QQ: So why do kids go to school? It’s the Law! Adults make the law and the law is enforced.

            The Theory of the Bayonet: the force of law ultimately relies on the willingness to use force and violence to coerce people to comply with what the law says, to do what they don’t want to do on their own. Why is it a law to force kids to go to school? Why are there state mandated tests that evaluate the students, teachers and schools? Because we as a society agree that school and learning are good and necessary things. What does school do for you?

School teaches you important facts, skills and how to think (-) and socializing skills. School prepares you for life, for getting a job, finding a mate, raising a family, contributing to society as a productive and informed citizen who participates in the political process. Going to school and becoming productive helps us win the war against ignorance, poverty and crime and lift up virtue, justice, creativity, productivity and progress. Teaching is the art and science of passing on to the next generation the essential knowledge and skills they will need to survive, be successful and to preserve and advance our culture and civilization that has been entrusted to us from our ancestors.

            Why Study History?


1.To discover why things are the way they are today. Animals have limited memory- they remember where food and water is, what their enemies smell like, where shelter is. Animals cannot ask “why” or “what if”. They live by instinct and have very little reasoning ability. They cannot investigate causes or processes. Is your life just peachy keen? Why? Could it change? Could you lose your peachy keen life situation? Is your life miserable? Why is it miserable? What are the causes of your life situation? Properly interpreting your personal history and your family’s history can help your life situation improve. Have things always been the same or have times gotten better or worse? Why?


2. To know who we are as a culture. To know the good and bad is important. Animals are not self aware, that is, they cannot know themselves critically; they cannot conduct a self exam so as to improve their lot in life. We can know ourselves, if we try, and take action accordingly to improve ourselves. We are social beings who live in families, neighborhoods and communities. We socialize at school, work and church. We have a group identity and our group has a history, is strong or weak, good and bad. Humans have a deep need for belonging to the group, relating to each other. Because we live in society we have obligations and privileges. The study of history gives us a sense of identity and belonging. To live in a proper relationship with the others in our society is a necessity, to move our society toward virtue, prosperity, justice and excellence is a good thing. If we lose our history and forget who we are and where we have come from we will wander on our journey as a civilization.

3. To find our purpose as a culture. Animals do not have a group identity or purpose other than as a pack, herd, flock, etc. they must eat, procreate and defend themselves. Humans can think with purpose and can plan and act with a purpose. Humans require a purpose for living beyond mere survival, in order to thrive. Our national or cultural history, our past, tells us where we have come from, who we are, and can be used to guide us to where we want to go. Having a national purpose unifies us and gives us hope for the future as well as a sense of belonging in the present. A sense of national pride can be a good thing, if the national purpose is good and virtuous. Without a purpose or sense of belonging, of contributing to the group, people tend toward depression, despair and hopelessness. Think of the movie the Bourne Identity; Jason Bourne was desperate to find out his past so that he could know who he was and why people were trying to kill him.

            This presupposes that a nation or culture can in fact have a purpose. In your studies of American history that will be one task you must strive to accomplish- finding out what our purpose as a people is. As a Christian you will know that our task as created beings, saved sinners, is to give glory to God by living in a proper relationship with God through Jesus. But what is our national purpose? I believe that our purpose can be found by studying those who founded this nation, so more of that later.

            4. Studying history helps us make informed decisions as citizens today that will affect our tomorrows positively. We don’t have to be mere pawns waiting for tomorrow, que sera sera, whatever will be will be is the philosophy of many. That is blind fatalism. As Christians we believe in the sovereign plan of God, His will is going to be worked out. However, in the working out of his will He has decided to allow us to participate. Our decisions have consequences, our thoughts and actions, our choices matter both for now and for eternity.

            Have you ever done or said anything in your past that brought about bad consequences and you wish you could go back and do over differently? Is it generally a good idea to learn from your mistakes? How about learning from other people’s mistakes? Or do you have to make all the mistakes in order to learn? It is far easier and cheaper to learn from other people’s mistakes! You see a friend get a ticket for DUI or get busted for drugs- you learn those things are bad and don’t do them. A friend gets pregnant before she is out of school and she is not going to marry the guy. Bad consequences! Learn from her mistake!

            Do countries make mistakes? Do cultures make bad decisions? Certainly! We as a people make decisions all the time that affect us here and now but also have long term consequences for the future. Star Trek IV** It is very possible that we as a people, who have largely forgotten our past, are making stupid decisions today that will bring bad consequences later. Can anyone point to any decisions our country has made in recent years that may have bad consequences later? (Electing Bill Clinton as President).

            5. We must study our history in order to know what is unique and valuable to our nation so that we can preserve it, improve it where possible and then pass it down safely to the next generation. In your studies of American History you will learn that we are a unique nation in the world’s history. Unique because we did not just inherit a national heritage, our founders deliberately set out to found a new kind of nation with liberty the goal. Most people for most of time have been slaves, serfs, peasants and oppressed. America is the most free and economically prosperous nation of all time. How did that happen? Is it guaranteed that we will stay that way? What is the price of that liberty, freedom and prosperity? Studying our history helps preserve our freedoms. Our history is a treasure chest that we must guard carefully. Eternal Vigilance is the price of liberty!

            6. Studying our history helps to make us virtuous citizens. Studying history gives us the good examples of truth, justice, courage and excellence to practice and to follow. History also gives us the bad examples of cruelty, ugliness and cowardice to avoid. We should strive to be virtuous citizens and seek out the pure, the true, the just, the beautiful and the good. When we study history we find the heroes and the villains, the victims and the vicious. We can discover on our own what works to produce liberty, justice and prosperity. A citizen who is well informed of the past is not easily swayed by demagogues who promise easy victory, quick riches, and equality of outcomes for all. A well informed citizen is a valuable asset to his culture.

            The current immigration problems will greatly affect the future of our nation because many millions are entering our country illegally without the benefit of learning our language, history and culture. Without that learning they cannot be virtuous citizens who share in our national purpose. They will in effect change our national purpose and cultural identity. Multiculturalism dissolves and fragments a society if it becomes dominant; and with unrestrained immigration it is going to become dominant.

            7. Studying history as a work of art for personal growth and fun can become a lifelong endeavor or hobby. History is full of drama, adventure, action, intrigue and tragedy.

            Play the John Wayne CD #1










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    This blog exists to study the bi-vocational ministry, explore the Bible & Theology, and look at current events, history and other world religions through scripture, and have fun doing it!


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