What is the point of History class? Beyond providing a convenient space in your day for an hour of daydreaming, there’s not much to truly recommend about this so called “core” class. When one thinks of the fantastic works of literature spawned from English composition, or the tremendous achievements done in the name of Science, or the everyday challenges that can be solved with Math, the achievements of History seem to fall far short of its siblings.
This is the underlying challenge that faces every History teacher. If there is no use in my subject, there is no use to me.It’s the type of existential crisis that keeps one up at night. Self-assured, confident historians might throw down a “those who do not learn from history are destined to repeat it” in order to attempt to blow some pathetic wind into their limp sails. However, anyone who says it obviously hasn’t heeded their own advice. Never in history has a platitude changed someone’s mind.
So, what use does History have? Does it exist only to persist societal stories and values? Is History nothing but a tool by those in power to spread patriotically convenient truths? Or is it the opposite? Is History meant to humble us, to connect us to our fellow man and remind us that, around the world or across time, we aren’t so different? Is empathy, to country or man, the “skill” learned in History? If so, History class is surely no match for the world connecting powers of a simple dialup connection.
Or is the skill learned more one of inquiry? Although certainly not something as easily added to a resume as “Microsoft Office Certified”, is inquiry a skill that can be valued and measured? Is the discipline of History about asking, finding, and sharing important questions about human existence and our place on the planet? Is History just Philosophy for dummies? A stepping stone on the way to avenues of true intrigue? Can Historical intrigue ever hope to battle against the precision of the Scientific Method or the philosophical mastery of the Socratic? If intrigue is the purpose of History, then surely students would be better served with their own imagination and the aforementioned dialup connection.
Perhaps inquiry is too broad. History’s purpose could be towards that of research. A subsection of inquiry, the skill of research is entirely focused on finding and using trustworthy and relevant sources to answer those questions that cling to our curiosity. With the rise of the internet and fake news, is History about this digital navigation? If this is so, does any History class need to teach a specific History? If the skill is about finding and validating sources, is it not counterproductive to present students with a textbook and say, “this book is law”? Would not students be better served with lessons about databases, biases, fallacies and primary sources? Would students focus better if left to their own curiosities in a controlled environment of academic study? Should research be the sole skill learned in History, in the modern world, that dialup connection would be sorely needed in every classroom.
What of truth? Truth is not a skill, but could it be argued to be as important as one? Who can define truth? Can we debate History? Science, yes, contains tested truths that only climate deniers and flat earthers would argue, but is History a science? Or is it an art? If it is a science, why do we need to interpret it? If an art, can any History be trusted? Who has the right to say what is truth and what is not when it cannot be observed firsthand? You? Me? The church? The government? Who is an unbiased source that will solely demand the truth and nothing but? I, for one, should not wish for the responsibility of defining truth, and will leave it to someone with a steady dialup connection.
At the end, could it be all four? Are empathy, inquiry, research, and truth compatible? If they are ever not compatible, which one must be given right of way? Do we advocate for truth to the point that we deny anyone the right to inquire for evidence? Can our need for verified, unbiased sources blind us to the human connection that bias brings? Can a desire to understand and love everyone cause inconvenient truths to be left by the wayside? What teacher could ever preach for the prevalence of one over the other? Composition is about writing, Science is about observation, Math is about logic, History is about contradictions.
At the core of these contradictions is the very purpose of History class. History’s purpose is not in the past, but in the present. Look back at all the questions we’ve raised and ask yourself one more: How did those questions make you feel? I am comfortable in assuming that one or more question struck a chord within you, either one of agreement or dissent. Go back to this question and consider your answer. That answer, whatever it is, is the purpose of History. The contradiction, and the point, of History class is that it has never been about the past but has always been about you. A mirror into the hopes and desires of your heart displaced across space and time. History is more than the human story, it’s your story.