Part I: History, what’s in it for you and me?

by Jennifer N. Fenwick, former American History teacher and author

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

First, we ARE history. From our genetic make-up, to the technologies we use, to the things we value and believe in, we are living products of history.

Understanding the linkages between past and present is absolutely basic for a good understanding of the condition of being human. That, in a nutshell, is why History matters. It is not just ‘useful’, it is essential.

Penelope J. Corfield | Making History, 2008

Second, the past teaches us about the present in a myriad of ways. Looking back through the long lens of history we discover patterns. After all history is created by living, thinking beings. Through research we can examine historical documents, records, and publications that reveal the ideas, motives, philosophies, and practices at the root of all human, and therefore historical, events.

Inevitably, examination of historical records reveals, over and over again, the following truths: (1) Some of those ideas and motives led to growth, inventive thinking, and positive change; while others led to systematic dismantling, destruction, and chaos; (2) Some led to increased freedom and prosperity; while others led to oppression and persecution; and finally, (3) As history is created by human beings who are imperfect, it is also imperfect, but it’s never irrelevant.

Why? Because the point for studying history is this: Through critical assessment of the events, the players, the ideas, and the outcomes of historical events, what worked, what did not, we learn from the past and then by applying that knowledge to inform our present, we grow.

Third, our shared heritage is a vital part of the fabric that unites us. On a personal level, our family history provides us with a sense of belonging; a sense of identity. It can be an extreme source of pride, as well as a foundation upon which to build. Examining your family history, is no different than examining your national history.

Understanding our history is vital to the future of our country. That shared heritage is what unites us as Americans. Certainly, it’s not perfect, but it’s ours. From generation to generation we’ve learned, we’ve grown, we’ve evolved as individuals and as a country.

That shared heritage is why history education matters. As Dr. William Bennett, author and former Secretary of Education stated, “If we don’t know where we came from, what our legacy is, what our inheritance is, how will we then support and defend it?”

Fourth, by studying history we acquire a range of skills that are useful in most every area of our lives. Most notably, studying history creates informed citizens, with the critical thinking skills, research skills, and general awareness to make logical choices and informed decisions. Our nation’s founders believed this to be so critical to sustaining democracy, that they envisioned a vast public education system that prepared youth to be active participants in the system of self-government the Constitution created.

Furthermore, you don’t have to be a historian or even a formal student of History, to explore the past and develop and apply these useful skills.

We do that on a personal and social level almost without thinking. How often do you research reviews of others’ experiences with a product or service you are considering BEFORE you commit to a purchase? How often do you put out feelers through your social media account for recommendations on the same. How many times have you asked for advice from a family member or friend simply because you value their experience and therefore their ideas and wisdom?

History, in the formal sense, is really no different. We look at the past to assist us in making decisions that impact our present and our future. “If we do not learn from the past, we are doomed to repeat it.”

That is one of the beauties of history. It’s open to all. Simple curiosity is enough to inspire a backwards look, yet the benefits of seeking and applying that knowledge are endless.

History , what’s in it for you and me?

We are. It’s in our genes. It’s our inheritance. And it will become our legacy.

In Part II we’ll explore the importance of critical thinking skills and how to apply them to your exploration of historical, as well as current events.