During my 30.5 years in the public school system, I had to answer this question more times, than I can recall. Administrators have asked it. Students have asked it. My family has asked it. Visitors at Antietam have asked it. "Why do we have to study history?" I had a department chair question the validity of teaching history. Go figure. When attempting to transfer to safer schools, I had to attempt to answer it. I apparently answered incorrectly because I never received a transfer, generally because I was not qualified to fill the available position.
So, how would I answer?
History is a jigsaw puzzle scattered across the floor of time. The history student, with a picture of the finished product, starts with the first piece and then begins studying the other pieces, looking for patterns and pieces, which properly fit. Sometimes, however, because history is about people, the patterns shift and branch in an unexpected direction, revealing a pattern, which the student had not anticipated. I see history as a puzzle within a puzzle. Each piece has a separate identity. Each one contributes something toward the solution of the puzzle. The student has to decide which pieces are irrelevant or do not pertain to the newly discovered thread.
History is not just facts. Facts in isolation are useless. However when placed within a specific time slot they start to become relevant. Each one builds upon the other and they are no longer trivia but evidence. Learning history is an adventure, cause and effect, action and over reaction, love and hatred, fear and euphoria, confidence and utter despair. It is about who we are and where we originated. It explains who we are and explores out intricacies. It helps us discover who we are, where we have been, and where we hope to end up.
How did I teach it?
The old-fashioned way – notes and storytelling, interspersed with humor, music, movies, readings, and writing. I was the outdated “sage on the stage” rather than the “guide on the side.” I used activities but only if they were based upon fact. Too many teachers used activities to mask ineptitude. Learning is work. It is not always fun. It is not “artsy fartsy.” Learning was the one thing no one could ever take away from me. No beatings, no belittlement, no humiliation, no intimidation could take away what I had buried in my brain. I had to work at learning. Once I had it, I locked it away to savor and to recall when times got rough.
History involves knowing people for who they are and learning how they think and act. Throughout the centuries, people have not really changed. We all know fear, anger, love, ecstasy, courage, and cowardice. History will exist as long as people have memories. Imagine living without the ability to remember. Imagine living in a void without dreams, without aspirations, without any past and no vision of the future – that is a world without history, without people, without aspirations. Maybe that is what the politicians want – a populace of mindless, unthinking automatons. A thorough understanding of history is tyranny’s greatest enemy.