Why I am grateful for history education: context, identity and liberty

November 24, 2020

Near the end of a year that has been difficult for all of us, I am grateful for many things. Likely because I study education policy, this year my list of gratitude includes history education.

Here are three reasons why:

Comfort and guidance for today’s struggles

Stories of the past give us context for sorting out today’s events, whether they be moments of triumph or tragedy. They show us that our isolating experiences may not be that unique. They give us a backdrop for what’s already happened and what’s already been learned. In short, history helps us take the current moment with a grain of salt. And that’s comforting.

Especially in a year that has felt so difficult (a global pandemic, civil unrest, contentious presidential election), it’s helpful to know something of our history – the reality that crises are not new and that most problems get resolved. Our nation has dealt with a revolution, a civil war, economic depressions and recessions, world wars, a cultural revolution, and more. And in each case, our nation endured. In this way, history points a way to hope, guidance and comfort.

Shared identity

History also gives people a shared identity. Think, for example, of families that inherit stories of their ancestors. Some family stories are funny, some are sad, some are noble, but the shared identity that comes from it can build a sense of something in common.

Our nation feels more divided than ever, and it’s obvious we need efforts that build unity. A common origin story can bring people together. America is a nation of people who rejected overbearing government and started a government on their own terms. It’s a story of people who committed to the highest ideals of freedom and who have been trying to reach them ever since. If we study an honest and complete version of our history, we can share an identity with that as the focus again.

Continued liberty

Our Founders knew that in order to keep such a unique form of government for the long haul, people would need to understand it. They would need to be taught it. And education ought to play a role in fulfilling that.

The concepts of liberty are not easy to establish (as America’s harshest critics will point out), which is why liberty must be taught. Civics education, with its emphasis on mechanisms and procedures, means little if people do not understand how its creators came to the conclusions that a government needed checks and balance, for instance, or ought to avoid a king. Knowing the story of independence and the aspiration for liberty makes it more likely their cause is our cause.

Thanksgiving offers us the opportunity to consider what we can be thankful for. This year, after studying more stories from the past, I add history to my list.

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