Why We Study History

Musings on Why We Study History

In Updates by Punita Rice

Until recently, I taught seventh graders about the World. Early in the school year, my students would usually ask the standard when are we ever going to use this? in class. I don’t hate the question; I didn’t really get history growing up either. The history teachers I had growing up didn’t really teach history in a way that brought it alive for me. I remember spending a lot of time aimlessly reading a textbook, memorizing names of states, and drawing in class while the teacher wrote names of dead presidents on the board.

So, yeah, not going to use most of that. Facts, names, and figures are dry.

But the stories from history aren’t dry. They’re the thing that makes history exciting. History came alive for me when my dad told me bedtime stories about the Sikhs that fought against Aurangzeb’s bloody crusade in India, or later, how Hari Singh Nalwa and the Sikh empire expanded and eventually fought the East India Trading Company. It was the stories that hooked me. To me, this stuff was not “history.” This was the stuff of action movies and war games. These were the stories that made me love the Shadow series, and action hero movies, and World of Warcraft. It wasn’t until college that I finally made the connection (while reading Shadow of the Hegemon) that these stories were history.

So when I decided to become a teacher, I decided I was going to teach with a focus on the stories, the themes, and the feelings — because that’s what sticks. Not dates, not names of regions, and not just lists with the names of dead guys. Adventures and concepts. When history emphasizes these, suddenly, it becomes very exciting.

More than any other reason, I teach history because I love stories. The entire Social Studies umbrella, history classes included, are essentially about the interwoven mess of human experiences: the stories of our people. I may be a somewhat nontraditional history teacher in that I don’t self-identify as a history buff, and didn’t grow up with an noteworthy penchant for trivia from any particular era in history. I grew up with the standard Maryland Social Studies curriculum (tossed with a little bit of Indian and Sikh history outside of school). In truth, what brought history alive for me was reading Orson Scott Card’s military strategy fiction: reading and imagining stories (albeit fictional ones) of political and military strategy in a romanticized way served as a catalyst for my realizing that the real-life version of history could be just as intriguing and dramatic. After reading Card’s books I started to kind of see the IRL individual stories of people rising and falling (and with them, their nations) as interconnected (large-scale stories/histories about the political impact of decisions feel relatable when thought about as the experiences of actual people).

It may also be because I was born on the opposite side of the world from where I live and teach now, and so I’ve heard two totally different histories. At home, I heard the stories and histories of my own people. Then, I moved to America, and in school, I learned an entirely new history, with its own stories and perspectives. And after becoming immersed and soaked in it, I realized there are an infinite number of stories about an infinite number of peoples and their experiences (and even an infinite number of versions of those stories to be told and heard). I love hearing these stories, and telling them. They inspired me, and they inspire other students too.

Many of the same reasons I teach history relate to why students need to learn about history and social studies: to make sense of the world around them. History is taught in almost the same way that Philosophy is taught: with a focus on questioning and on developing skills.

Specifically, they need to develop Historical Thinking Skills to develop a framework for thinking, which means students need to be able to:

  • Know the Importance of History: It isn’t enough to just know facts or about events; students need to understand the relevance, importance, and relationships between the stories of the past.
  • Develop Historical Thinking Skills: Knowing the content only goes so far; the real value of history coursework is to teach students historical thinking skills, so they understand how to analyze and think about history and its lessons, and how to apply those same thinking skills universally.
  • Practice Skepticism: Students must know how to appropriately question claims and even validity of sources, and to understand the importance of source (assess value).

In many ways, the study of history teaches students to become independent thinkers. And so, it’s important that we do it well.

P.S. – Seventh graders on the technological singularity, and a lesson plan for the movie Invictus and about Nelson Mandela.