Why History Matters

by Glenn Davies. Glenn is a history teacher from Brisbane, Australia. Please read his article and leave your thoughts and comments below.

History is about change. It is the subject that contributes the most to the broadening out of the imagination. One of the purposes of the study of history is to help students transcend their own immediate experience and gain an understanding about how humanity has evolved and developed. It is ironic that when there is constant media comment on the need for workers of the future to be capable of adapting to change, that the academic study of change provided through the history curriculum is dismissed. History teaches critical thinking, something we all need plenty of today. It looks at people over times past and present in different societies, noticing and explaining their attitudes, beliefs and behaviours, and interpreting their reactions to the various pressures, conditions and events that induce change.

If you think about it – history is all around us like never before, more people read history, watch history and explore history through the multitude of family history websites. The Australian community continues to demonstrate a popular interest in the past, not in History as a discipline, but History as an entertaining window on the past.  National competitions, commemorations of special events, historic homes, heritage walks, antiques, vintage cars, History theme parks, historical drama, television documentaries and historical movies are increasingly entertaining and informing Australians about what it was like in the old days.

One view is that history is ‘what happened’ in the past and it cannot be retrieved, nor completely known or understood. A quite different view is that the past can be known and that history is in fact a record of the important things that happened. Between these extremes is a range of views of history – as an academic discipline, a popular pastime, and even as a form of entertainment. As an academic discipline history is studied in universities and as an occupation practiced by professional historians. For historians operating at this level, history is very much a process of investigation using particular methods and skills to find, analyse, and interpret sources of evidence in order to offer an explanation or interpretation of the past. History enjoys great popularity in the wider community. People engage with history in different ways, for example by undertaking family or local history, visiting museums, monuments and heritage sites. Some collect stamps, coins, historical photographs, toys or clothing. Others are actively involved in historical associations and re-enactment societies. The prevalence of history websites, books, feature films and documentaries with historical settings are clear evidence of the popularity of history.

A study of history teaches students to think, to problem-solve, and to analyse. Would you want a doctor who takes a cursory glance at your symptoms, and decides you have the flu, all the while ignoring the evidence of the rash? Not weighing all the evidence could mean that you died of meningitis. Would you want a mechanic who is not prepared to problem solve to find the true cause of a suspicious rattle, getting you to pay for unnecessary repairs instead? Can you trust a policeman who wants to prove his theory, without looking for evidence that he may be wrong? Meanwhile you are sitting in jail for something you didn’t do.

The teaching of history in schools has a vital role to play in the development of a student’s understanding of his or her political, cultural and social contexts, as well as their responsibilities. History is not just about understanding what happened in the past. The job of school History is to provide students with this intellectual toolkit that will allow them to make connections with the past and make informed moral decisions about their lives in the present and future. The teaching of history is an important and vital role for the future of our society.

The ancient writer Cicero presents an argument for why history matters:

To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?”

Some people question the need to understand the past. But there are many very good reasons for studying history. Knowledge of history helps us to understand our heritage. We start to understand where our ideas, languages, laws and many other aspects of our lives came from. We can also develop more open minds and learn to appreciate cultures that are different from our own. In the words of Alexis de Tocqueville: “When the past no longer illuminates the future, the spirit walks in darkness“. History is a journey of discovery through time.

In the 1990s and 2000s, Australian public life had been preoccupied as never before with arguments about the past. The ‘History Wars’ of the 1990 and 2000s was fought over the re-writing of history to suit political visions. In a National Press Club speech on the eve of Australia Day 2006, Prime Minister John Howard called for a ‘root and branch renewal’ of history teaching in schools. He was critical of the ways in which students were taught about Australia’s past and Indigenous history, and proposed some new directions. The debates focused on his move to produce a national Australian History curriculum, beginning with his convening of a ‘History Summit’ to thrash out such a curriculum. Whatever the view’s on Prime Minister Howard’s political agenda in imposing a national history curriculum, the idea was widely celebrated by historians and history teachers as giving an emphasis back on the subject.

The purpose of school history is the development of critical skills in students. Such a purpose is distinct from developing general historical understanding or even specific content knowledge. In Australian primary and secondary schools, History is widely seen as a curriculum content area which promotes knowledge about the past, but just as importantly history includes a concept of the past that portrays it as a contested space and a record of events that needs scrutinising and interrogation. History has probably never been more politicised than it is today. Politicians, journalists, columnists, academics and Australians from all walks of life argue passionately — and often, ideologically — about the significance of the national story: the cherished ideal of the ‘fair go’, the much contested facts of Indigenous dispossession, the Anzac Legend, and the nation’s strategic alliance with the United States. Historians have become both combatants and casualties in this war of words.

Contestability occurs when particular interpretations about the past are open to debate, for example, as a result of lack of evidence or different perspectives. In Australia, there has been historical debate around the validity of the Anzac Legend. Over the past few years there have been historians who have questioned the Anzac legend constructed at Gallipoli and based on a narrative that included distorted accounts reported by C.E.W. Bean in The Anzac Book. Historical inquiry shows that this book alone contains many inaccurate accounts of Anzacs at Gallipoli. But the questions remain, ‘was Bean acting unethically?’, and ‘should teachers of History challenge the Anzac legend more critically with their students?’   Other ‘contestable’ historical issues include the debate around the migration of ancient peoples, the extent of the Australian frontier wars, and whether there should be an Australian as Head of state.

History isn’t a dry and remote subject. It should be examined for what it can suggest about the world which we inhabit now, as well as the world that was inhabited in the past – and it may even have something to say about the future.

When we study history, we are looking at the past. When we study Historiography, we examine how historians look at the past through the study of historical writing. But when we study historical consciousness, we are studying how people today look at the past, from their standpoints in a multicultural, globalising, regionalised, gender-conscious twenty-first century.

The ultimate purpose of studying history is to give meaning to our own life—a personal statement of identity. We incorporate into our own experiences and understandings the examples and case studies of other peoples who have expressed their hopes, endured conflicts, lived ordinary lives with their environment, and in their localities. The best way to prepare students for their future working lives is to broaden their minds by teaching them about change. Their future lives will revolve around change – and history is about the study of change.

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