History and the rest of the humanities have been under attack for decades. I don’t think there’s ever been a set of parents on the face of the earth who’ve heard their kid come home and say “I want to major in history” without there being at least a two-hour lecture on why that is a terrible idea. We know, we know. You won’t make any money. There are no jobs. Your cousin Billy got a business degree, don’t you want to get a business degree too? The neighbor’s kid got a degree in the humanities and he lives in his parent’s basement and works at the Tasty Freeze.
While I agree history isn’t necessarily the best career decision for everyone (I mean I love it–so stay away so you don’t take away my already limited job prospects), that doesn’t mean we should start pulling history programs left and right at the high school and university level. As of right now, the only real exposure to history for American kids consist of state tests that turn our children into little a, b, c, or d robots. Do they understand the American Civil war? No. But they know the process of elimination, dang it! That has to count for something.
Most American universities require at least one history course for all of their students, even though that is steadily declining. People who don’t study history think that all we teach in our courses are narratives and dates of big world events starting from Mesopotamia to the Vietnam war. And while we certainly want our students to walk away with an understanding of events, studying history is vital to all students outside of state tests and entry level 101 courses. We need to encourage a base knowledge of the humanities on our youngest citizens because it will teach them to become reasonable people. There are reasons why we live in such a polarized era of “I’m right, your wrong” citizenship. It’s because history teaches us to be reasonable and we don’t really teach it anymore.
History is based on evidence–not emotion:
My history boyfriend John Adams once said, “Facts are stubborn things and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” I’m going to go on record by saying that’s the most profound quote I’ve ever read in my life. You can have conviction and beliefs, but you shouldn’t let those emotions blind you to evidence.
In history we gather sources from a particular era to form a conclusion. There are certainly some liberties in there with interpretation. It’s difficult enough to understand events in our own eras much less something that happened centuries ago and only a handful of documents to back it up. However, we go to school as long as brain surgeons to make sure we use as much objectivity as possible when examing documents and making claims. You know… so we don’t write a “Killing Some Person” book.
History teaches students to put their politics or culture aside when looking to the past. Most history teachers hand students copies of these primary documents. We let them read word for word what someone else said a couple hundred years ago. We give them an opportunity to describe what those documents mean. Then we ask them about the context of the time period the document comes from. A lot of us even ask if this changes their minds about what they’d been told about said event in popular culture. You wouldn’t believe the kids who have their minds blown when they read the Mississippi Secession document to see the thesis statement asserts the state was leaving the Union to maintain the institution of slavery—after they’ve been told their whole lives that was not the cause.
By studying history and learning the significance of evidence we teach our kids to question “Fake News,” click bait, and make educated decisions about the state of the world and politics based on evidence and not emotion. If a business major walks out of my class not remembering a dang thing about the American Revolution but understands the importance of evidence I have done my job.
Evidence teaches us to be flexible.
So there is a finicky thing about evidence. It can change. Every now and then some 80-year-old woman in Maine will crawl to the top of her attic and find a stack of letters and documents from the American Revolution. Sometimes those documents completely change the way we originally thought about a topic, a person, or an event. We find brand new evidence in history all the time. When we write our books and articles we are limited to what we have at that moment. At any second after our one of our book presses hits “print” someone can find something hidden in the depths of the archive that completely derails our thesis. Yikes! Does it suck? Yes, it does. But we are taught to roll with the punches and that things can always change.
Evidence teaches our students to be flexible and to understand that with new findings can come new conclusions–and that’s ok! The evidence we find might completely rock the foundations of things we once built our entire values around, but we shouldn’t be scared of it. We should embrace it. In the words of the 11th doctor, “Times change and so must I.” As we are confronted with new discoveries we should evaluate them alongside with the evidence we had before and come to conclusions based on context and reason. Who knows. Maybe those new documents were complete bologna or that science report was flawed and baseless. But we need to evaluate it just in case those letters in Maine had some value. And if they do have value we should feel comfortable enough to change our opinions.
If history teaches good citizenship, it should also teach our students that it is ok to change their minds based on evidence and changing evidence. Reaching across the aisle become a lot easier when you are willing to listen to each other and admit things can change.
Just because someone stands for something different than you doesn’t always make them the bad guy.
You know I couldn’t write a blog post without mentioning loyalists. It’s kind of what I do! You wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve been introduced to a group I’m about to present to when the announcer will say something to the effect of “This is Stephanie. She studies loyalists. But she’s ok because her husband is a United States Marine.” Like being married to the ultimate patriot makes me ok because otherwise, I’d be a complete traitor for studying traitors. Most of the time this comment is thrown out in jest as comedic relief, but there is always a little bit of truth behind it. Calm down folks, you can listen to her because she really isn’t all that bad.
However, when we teach classes we don’t always teach the grand narrative the winning side. Yes, it’s true that the victors dominate the story, but we try to teach our students about the “other side” too. When I describe motivations for loyalism to students they become a lot more understanding of why so many people decided they didn’t want there to be a United States, but remain a part of the British Empire. The loyalists I study have a plethora of reasons why they remained loyal. Imagine you are a father of 8 children and you are widowed. You are a merchant and your livelihood depends on trade with Great Britain. If even a few months that trade is blocked you find yourself in jail for your debts, your children are orphaned, and your business is caput. This was the reality of a lot of my loyalists—not to mention how many of them had long family genealogies of cavaliers during the English Civil War and heritage outweighed politics. Does any of this sound familiar? Very rarely does history translate well to the present, but in this case, it hits home for a lot of students. A lot of patriot families during the American Revolution had the exact same reason for being patriots. When you bring family, heritage, and survival into the equation empathy all of a sudden matters. Sure we don’t have to agree with the other side, but just because they were different didn’t mean they were total bastards who deserve ridicule and disdain.
Maybe instead of making fun of, rolling our eyes, or disregarding the beliefs of our enemies, we become more reasonable people if we take two seconds to just ask “why?”
Calm down this is not the end of the world.
Did you know the end is coming? Well good. Because the end has been coming for a long time if you talk to ancient peoples, Medieval priests, and evangelical Great Awakening-ers. Is the end of the world actually imminent? Maybe. But when things don’t go our way humans have this really interesting way of automatically assuming that it is surely the end of the world and society is about to be filled with death and destruction. Gay rights? End of the world. Democrats lose a seat? End of the World. Someone said Happy Holidays? END OF THE WORLD!
You know who probably really felt like it was the end of the world? The 1/3 of the folks who didn’t die in Europe during the black plague. Those who lived during the London Blitz. Those who fought during world wars, the Crusades, you name it. Because the world actually went to hell in a handbasket for a hot second there and it was terrifying.
Because someone didn’t get what they wanted doesn’t make it the end of the world. This isn’t to assume that bad things don’t happen and we shouldn’t take a stand when we see an abuse of power. Quite the opposite. History requires us to act, to defend, and to acknowledge that terrible things can happen if we don’t take some events seriously. History teaches us about when the world did actually feel like it was coming to an end and to not take these times for granted. It teaches us to appreciate that there is no generation that makes it out of this life unscathed. There are always bad things, bad people, bad laws, and bad blood. But somehow in some way we are still here. All of those times we felt the world was coming to an end humanity persisted. Robert E. Lee once said that “History teaches us to hope.” I want my students to walk out of my class understanding evidence, but I also want them to walk out with a message of hope. It will always be “that bad.” That doesn’t mean you foam at the mouth and roll around screaming that the world is coming to an end. It means you persist, dang it. And you work to fix it like others did before you.
So do historians know everything and studying history teaches you everything? Absolutely not. What history promotes is abstract thought—hell! Thought in general. History isn’t like math in that there is just one answer and one way to get that answer. History teaches us that there are millions of different voices and approaches. Any time an answer comes easy, we should question it because that is just not how humanity works. It teaches us to search for evidence, reason, and abuses of power. Will studying history makes us all pow wow and get along? No. But it will teach us to listen. It makes the other side of the aisle a lot more reachable. It also makes us a lot less vain in thinking that everything revolves around us. And as flawed as Lee was he was right in that the narratives of the past should teach us to hope. If we could all use a little something across time and space, it is hope.