Thursday, February 28, 2008

History Is Not Irrelevant

"History is boring." "There's no point in memorizing dates." "This has nothing to do with me."

These words make me cringe. As a Buddhist, I'm supposed to be compassionate and non-violent, but when I hear people express these negative sentiments about history, I want to grab them by the shoulders and shake some sense into them.

Recently, the Common Core group commissioned a study of American teenagers and their knowledge of history and literature. The results were stunning:

In the survey, 1,200 17-year-olds were called in January and asked to answer 33 multiple-choice questions about history and literature that were read aloud to them. The questions were drawn from a test that the federal government administered in 1986.

About a quarter of the teenagers were unable to correctly identify Hitler as Germany’s chancellor in World War II, instead identifying him as a munitions maker, an Austrian premier and the German kaiser.


Fewer than half of American teenagers who were asked basic history and literature questions in a phone survey knew when the Civil War was fought, and one in four said Columbus sailed to the New World some time after 1750, not in 1492.

Sometimes I wonder if I'm the last vestige of the archetypal American public school student. What ever happened to the basic rhyme of "In fourteen hundred and ninety two/Columbus sailed the ocean blue"? In eighth grade I had to make lists of important dates, so I would learn the progression of people through history, from the Magna Carta in 1215 to the Civil Rights Act of 1968. When I got to high school I studied wide swaths of history, from ancient days to the 20th century. And sometimes it wasn't fascinating for me, but it taught me a lot of things besides dates.

History is a field that requires amazing critical thinking skills. Whatever type of history you study--ancient, modern, military, social, Marxist, political, economic--you need to analyze primary and secondary sources, create well-structured arguments, and write concise, tight documents. While my high school teachers praised my writing skills before I got to college, my undergraduate years polished my abilities until my written rhetoric flowed from my mind to the page as if pouring water from a pitcher.

I thought of this rigorous training and how it benefited me when I read a comment on the original article from Ffrank (sic) in Ohio:
"The sad truth is you don't need a knowledge of history or literature to succeed in almost all jobs. Haven't noticed any discussions about the Treaty of Westphalia at my workplace lately, and I work for a university."
I have to disagree with Ffrank. When I was working in university development, I found my historical knowledge allowed me to have great in-depth conversations with donors. When I worked at an art school, my training in history allowed me to appreciate students' work within a framework of progression of art over history. In my work as a Research Administrator now, I can speak easily with the cardiology research teams I work with because I wrote my thesis on medieval medicine, which falls into the topic category of History of Science.

And certainly all the interdisciplinary skills I learned inform my work and that is one reason why I am so capable in my job. Research, writing, organization--these are key skills picked up in the study of history.

(The obvious example of why history is relevant today is of course, the Iraq War seen light of the mistakes made by the Nixon Administration in Viet Nam. But that's another discussion entirely.)

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