When I was a little girl, my mother read me the Little House on the Prairie series. I loved those books with a passion and would play Laura Ingles Wilder almost every day. However, I wanted my play time to be authentic. And so I, as a five- and six-year-old, researched pioneers; I learned everything I could about them—what they ate, what they wore, what their covered wagons were like. I always wore a bonnet and apron and even made my own pretend butter churn out of an umbrella holder and a broom handle. As I grew up, my love of the authentic experience grew with me. I never played “house” without a theme: Red Scare in the 1950s, Londoners during the Blitz, 1920s flappers, medieval European peasants…the list goes on and on. However, when I got into higher level history classes in school, I realized that what had always been fascinating stories and games for me were much, much more than that: studying history is a way of processing the world, connecting the past to both the present and the future, and creating an analytical empathy that produces good citizens.
Now, as I prepare to enter my career as a history teacher, I have to find a way to pass this knowledge on to my students. But before a teacher can begin to teach the skills that history so readily provides, she must engage the students in the content. History, in this sense, is worth studying because it holds relevance to everyone. The content of history cannot be easily classified into one discipline, combining science, art, music, literature, politics, philosophy, medicine, mathematics, and economics into the study of human life, which in turn incorporates analytical, interpretive, artistic, and comprehensive viewpoints into one study. It is because of this mixing of disciplines that history, when presented with passion and intrigue, has the potential to captivate and inspire all students individually.
But studying our past does more than simply fascinate students; the study of history prevents ignorance. Because of all fields covered in history, the study of it creates a broad knowledge base; in this sense, studying history creates well-rounded people. A lack of historical knowledge creates dependence on the present—if one can neither learn from the past nor make predictions about the future, it leaves him stranded in the endless present. Similarly, history inspires introspectiveness in individuals and the society in general; one can discover and refine his personal, cultural, and national identity while learning about the past.
However, history is still something more than just being interesting to study and preventing ignorance; it is a way of thinking. As a secondary history teacher, I will be teaching the content of history, but I will also be teaching the thought process behind it. I believe that one of the most important reasons why history is worth studying is because it teaches higher level critical thinking, which creates a smarter and more empathetic population. For example, the ability to evaluate an argument or a document is useful not only in understanding the past, but also in assessing for bias, opinion, and argument in everyday life; whether it’s looking for prejudice in a news program or looking for the hidden agenda in a political candidate’s speech, the thinking skills emphasized in history create better citizens who can make judgments for themselves.
Further, the ability to compare and contrast on both an individual and a general level is something that is taught explicitly through the study of history and leads to more empathetic thinkers. Historians are able to think in terms of multiple perspectives, which in turn creates people who are more open-minded to a variety of opinions and not one single “truth.” Further, by purposely looking at an event or problem from a different angle or viewpoint, historians inadvertently think in terms of other people. By thinking outside of the box and working to see things in different lights, they create an ability to think critically that is unparalleled in any other discipline.
Memory of the past also generates a consciousness of actions in the present, thereby creating a moral compass for society. However, along with this sense of morality from the past, historians are also able to recognize that ideas and conditions are not timeless, they are continually changing and therefore codes of conduct are never static. With this viewpoint, historians are able to find new ways to apply information, connecting the past and present while always realizing that no society is unchanging. Therefore, I believe that the thought process involved in studying history is applicable not only to the past, but to other disciplines and to everyday life as well, creating citizens that can critically and compassionately analyze any situation.
Clearly, then, history as a discipline connects the past, present, and future, offers analytical, interpretive, and creative methods of study, and generates a critical empathy in those who study it. Through a thoughtful and careful history curriculum, teachers have the ability to create well-rounded and empathetic people, who will in turn become active and thoughtful citizens. The role of the teacher is to challenge students’ thinking—pushing them to draw their own conclusions, defend their arguments, and make their own conscious decisions, while first giving them the tools to evaluate the situation. Many times, it is difficult to come to any one conclusion when studying history, and one is sometimes left with more questions than answers. But this, to me, is what history is about: the process. The process of analyzing, interpreting, rethinking, evaluating, and creating when studying history has shaped how I view both myself and the world and that is the what I hope my students will see for themselves as well.