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Why History Matters


[Originally published on Teaching in Lingit Aani, republished with permission]
I just finished my first day student teaching with students in the classroom, and for the most part I just observed, briefly introducing myself in each class and doing a little bit to help. One of the key tasks I believe any teacher has is to convince their students why their teaching has meaning—why it’s important, why it matters.
Math seems to be the subject most people think of as one that needs extra justification and leaves many students thinking they didn’t need to learn it, but the situation applies just as readily to history.
I don’t think the only way to convince students that history matters is just by telling them why; indeed, the lesson would be much more effective and meaningful if the students discovered history’s importance in their own organic way. Nevertheless, here is a little “speech” I thought up last night about why history matters. This is merely a rough draft—some notes I took after thinking about it while brushing my teeth (to be perfectly honest). Perhaps I’ll keep improving on this “speech” and write new drafts in the future.
As you all probably know, every subject in school has its ways of justifying itself. In English they tell you that if you can’t read and write you won’t survive. In math they tell you you’ll need to be able to work with numbers later in life.
In history, what can we tell you? Maybe some of you think history is just a bunch of old stories, and it doesn’t matter to your life whether you know about them or not. I wouldn’t blame you if you think that’s true, but this is why you need history:
If you want to analyze or understand anything about yourself and the human world around you without history, your analysis and your understanding will always be shallow, and often you will be wrong. Take the current Syria crisis for example—I hope you’ve all at least heard about the Syria crisis going on. If you look at what is going on from just the perspective of the present, you think, “Well, the President of Syria is killing his own people, and that’s bad. He used chemical weapons, so now President Obama has a tough decision about how to respond to that, and there may be some other things involved like the U.N., Russia, and China.”
That understanding of what’s going on is very shallow. You really have no idea why it’s happening at all. And—no offense to many in the media—but that’s often all the information they give you. It’s up to you to understand things better.
If you look at history, you begin to understand why the United States might intervene in Syria—its geopolitical position after the Cold War and after 9/11; why Obama has the power to make these decisions—the growth of American presidential power over the last century. And, finally, why there’s war going on in the first place—colonialism, neocolonialism, Ba’athist authoritarianism, and the Arab Spring. On each of these points, the study of history can take you so much deeper.
History helps explain who we are, why we are here, why we do what we do, and what we can do to change the future.
I’ve just been reading this book called “What If?”. It’s about how little changes in history could have made the present completely different. In a way, that shows how important all of us are: If we do just one thing differently, we can totally change the course of a day, the course of our lives, or even the course of the whole world. We’re here to help you explore history, learn from it, and hopefully learn how your actions and what’s going on all around us will shape the future you inherit. Understanding the present and the future just a little bit better can make all the difference for every one of us.


  1. Depends a lot on how old the kids are too. What age range are you teaching? I remember nothing before high school, little of that and mostly the only stuff of use I got was from college. Nobody every bothered making the teaching plans relevant to me growing up. Now I’m busy begging my two youngins to pay attention so they don’t have to spend years playing catch up like pops. So raise your voice on the day you dole out this lesson!!