The Three Reasons We Teach History

“If we act only for ourselves,” wrote Samuel Johnson, “to neglect the study of history is not prudent. If we are entrusted with the care of others it is not just.” Prudence and justice are two words conspicuous by their absence inour otherwise verbose debates on how, why, and when to teach which sort of history to American children. The National Standards for History, for instance, have been criticized from many perspectives, but to my knowledge I am the onlyreviewer to question the strength of those standards as well as their weaknesses. I found them altogether too inclusive, demanding, and sophisticated for high school teachers and students. For instance, I considered the Standards’ repeated invitations to debunk the sainted image of Woodrow Wilson entirely legitimate, but asked whether “it is wise to teach grade-schoolers that Wilson was foolish or hypocritical to proclaim democracy, disarmament, self-determination, free trade, and a League of Nations to a war-ravaged world?” A college seminar should take a critical stance toward the icons of American history. But is it prudent to turn 11th graders into cynics with regard to the values their nation holds dear?

The sterility of the current debate over history may be explained by the failure of combatants of all political stripes to acknowledge and grapple with the fact that the teaching of history serves three functions at once. One, obviously, is intellectual. History is the grandest vehicle for vicarious experience: it truly educates (“leads outward” in the Latin) provincial young minds and obliges them to reason, wonder, and brood about the vastness, richness, and tragedy of the human condition. If taught well, it trains young minds in the rules of evidence and logic, teaches them how to approximate truth through the patient exposure of falsehood, and gives them the mental trellis they need to place themselves in time and space and organize every other sort of knowledge they acquire in the humanities and sciences. To deny students history, therefore, is to alienate them from their community, nation, culture, and species.

The second pedagogical function of history is quite different, and often seems to conflict with the first. That is its civic function. From the ancient Israelites and Greeks to the medieval church to the modern nation-state, those charged with educating the next generation of leaders or citizens have used history to impart a reverence for the values and institutions of the creed or state. The post-modern critic may immediately charge that to do so amounts to a misuse of history and the brainwashing of young people: just think of the sectarian history taught in religious schools, the indoctrination imposed by totalitarian regimes, or the flag-waving history that hoodwinked young Americans into volunteering for the Vietnam War. But to cite such examples is to beg the question. The civic purpose of history cannot be abolished, since all history— traditional or subversive of tradition—has a civic effect. So the real questions are whether American schools ought to tilt toward extolling or denouncing our nation’s values and institutions, and how the civic function may be fulfilled without violence to the intellectual function of history.

Those questions are painfully hard to resolve, and are a matter of conscience as much as of reason—which brings us to the third, moral, function of history. If honestly taught, history is the only academic subject that inspires humility. Theology used to do that, but in our present era— and in public schools especially— history must do the work of theology. It is, for all practical purposes, the religion in the modern curriculum. Students whose history teachers discharge their intellectual and civic responsibilities will acquire a sense of the contingency of all human endeavor, the gaping disparity between motives and consequences in all human action, and how little control human beings have over their own lives and those of others. A course in history ought to teach wisdom— and if it doesn’t, then it is not history but something else.

I believe it is possible to pursue all three purposes of history in books and the classroom. None of us will do so without friction and shortfalls, because we are no less creaturely than the historical people we teach about. Moreover, the quality of our instruction is limited and skewed by the finite set of facts we know or set before our pupils. But errors of fact and judgment as to what to include or omit are excusable and correctable. What is inexcusable and, as Samuel Johnson wrote, unjust is the willful denial of truth or promotion of falsehood in order to “slamdunk” into students an intellectual, civic, or moral purpose at the expense of the other two. Johnson may havebeen thinking about statesmen when he referred to those “entrusted with the care of others.” But no one is more entrusted with others’ care than teachers, and no teachers more than historians.

There is no magic formula for the concoction of curricula that mix the three functions of history. But we could do worse than to follow the prescription of eminent world historian William H. McNeill:

“One cannot know everything, hence one must make choices. And just as some facts are more important to know than others, so have certain cultures displayed skills superior to those of others in every time and place in history. Imagine living in proximity to a competitor possessed of skills greater than yours. There is no use asserting that your culture is just as good as his. It palpably isn’t, and you must do something about it…. Superiority and inferiority, real and perceived, are the substance of human intercourse and the major stimulus to social change throughout history…. And the principle of selection is simply this: what do we need to know in order to understand how the world became what we perceive it to be today?”

“Thus, we must focus the attention of our students on the principal seats of innovation throughout history, while remaining aware of the costly adaptations and adjustments and in many cases the suffering of those conquered or displaced by dint of their proximity to those seats of innovation. The main story line, therefore, is the accumulation of human skills, organization, and knowledge across the millennia, which permitted human beings to exercise power and acquire wealth through concerted action among larger and larger groups of people across greater and greater distances until we reach our present era of global interaction.”

McNeill’s principle is no less applicable to U.S. history. An honest history must hear and pass on the laments of those displaced (including many white males) in the course of our nation’s growth. But the main story line must remain that of the Euro-American dominant culture, its ideals and aspirations, creativity and service to itself and others in peacetime and war: the good as well as the bad and ugly. For only by learning that story will tomorrow’s leaders— of whatever race or sex— know the standards they are supposedto live up to, gain the knowledge needed to excel, and begin to acquire good judgment, without which the power that knowledge imparts is a curse.

Related Articles by Walter McDougall

Available from FPRI upon request

  • “Whose History? Whose Standards?,” Commentary, May 1995
  • “What Johnny Still Won’t Know About History,” Commentary, July 1996
  • “Bury My Heart at PBS,” Commentary, December 1996
  • “First Fruits of Those History Standards: Textbook Review,” Footnotes, April 1997

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