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Why History Courses Matter Now More Than Ever

The past two years have been confusing to watch.  Many of President Trump’s decisions (such as withdrawing from the Iran Deal or refusing to address climate change) have made no sense to me.   However, one event stuck out:  it was during his first ever State of the Union address in January 2018.  Mr. Trump made a statement about bolstering our nuclear arsenal; he said we needed to “modernize and rebuild” it.  This made me think, “Hey, didn’t we have something already in place to stop nuclear proliferation?” The obvious answer, besides having the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT), had been that in 2017, the United Nations proposed a treaty to prohibit testing, stationing, production & stockpiling of nuclear weapons.  You can read more about it here:

But the United States never signed on to this agreement.  It’s as if the threat posed by nuclear weapons was never made apparent the first time we used one during World War II, or the first time we were directly threatened by one.  And now, we are repeating a cycle that thrusts us back into the same rhetoric, and could bring us closer and closer to the mutually assured destruction that occurred in the past.

Then again, at least I’d hope people would have heard about what happened in the past.  But evidently, many have not.  And yet, despite this lack of knowledge, the humanities are among the most threatened educational courses within American high schools. In 2014, the National Assessment of Educational Progress revealed that only 18% of students were well-versed in U.S. History. Four years on, and as neck-deep we are in technology and hard sciences, it wouldn’t come as a surprise that knowledge of history had devolved even lower.  And studies show that colleges are in a similar situation.  There are even some schools that want to do away with the majors like History entirely; this was recently proposed at the University of Wisconsin/Stevens Point, with the idea it would be better to focus mainly on STEM.

In my view, eliminating humanities courses and downplaying the study of history is short-sighted.  There is only one vehicle that allows voters and world leaders to refer back to (and hopefully learn from) past mistakes and understand why certain decisions were made–  that would be studying history.

I’ll be honest: I never looked at history as an important subject when I was younger.  It was my dad who always pushed me and urged me to pay more attention to history; we would talk about it in car rides to my high school, until one day, in the middle of a sunlit room, it suddenly clicked. I stopped thinking about history as an answer key for my quizzes and tests; I stopped thinking about history as just another  homework assignment; I stopped perceiving history as just numbers and dates. It all changed, and thus emerged my affection for studying history. It’s so much more than just a source for instant answers in a game of trivia, or your token project for the history fair.  History creates a beautiful story. To apply a visual aid to the text:  history is much like Pieter Bruegel’s oil piece ‘The Procession to Calvary’. It’s a snapshot of everything happening within a region, across different points. History is a living snapshot of what had been, what is going on, and what is to come. You soak it in like a good book, or like a living piece of art, and you interpret it and make connections just as you would with other such media. You relate books to events going on in your life, or you relate paintings to social causes or ideas. With history, you connect these events, and they form something special.

But, this is more than just a passing interest of mine; it’s what I’ve chosen as my major, despite how some schools seem to believe only STEM matters.  Don’t misunderstand me:  STEM is important.  Some schools are even combining STEM and Humanities, and there are important connections to be made between the two areas.

But my choice is to focus on history.  So, what makes it worth going into that field?  Back in 2009, I lived in Ireland for six months. I got the opportunity to see Trinity College in Dublin, and see their massive library first hand. The structure felt like it just came out of a Harry Potter movie, and like the curious kid I was, I got a two-thousand piece puzzle set to assemble on my own. Any time I think of what this profession means to me, I always think of that puzzle set.

As a historian, I take these individual accounts, records, or artifacts that represent the puzzle pieces; no two are alike, and you put them together to create the larger pictures that they represent. History is one huge puzzle that allows us to find out more, as we uncover more data and details.  But the borders aren’t always defined. They keep expanding, and keep allowing us to record and discover more data in the future. Now, you might be thinking: “most puzzle sets always come with all their pieces.” While that may be true, maybe your puzzle set was a hand-me-down; maybe you lost some pieces; the manufacturer didn’t include them; or maybe your big brother stole them because he’s mean. History doesn’t account for all records and evidence; there are missing pieces to the puzzle, and that’s what attracts me– the mysteries within history.

And that brings me back to what I said earlier: whether it’s a president who does not seem to know much about U.S. history, or people who don’t remember what they studied, we are living in a culture where social movements like white nationalism are distorting the past and taking advantage of the public’s lack of knowledge.  And that is why the study of history is more important than ever.

2 Responses »

  1. Spot on Tony; if you want to choose the right future you have to know your past (so you don’t repeat mistakes). Love your article, keep writing more please.

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