Why Do We Teach History?

Dr. Bryan Smith


Education isn’t just about math, science, and English. It’s also about history. But have you ever wondered why?

The answer is obvious with the other subjects. How can you function in the modern world if you don’t know math and science and how to communicate? But history? Think about the last time you went to a job interview. Were you asked to list the U.S. presidents in order or to summarize the key achievements of the Ming Dynasty? Probably not.


Proposed Purposes Through the years, many proposals have been offered for why we teach history. But they tend to miss the core purpose. Let me clear these out of the way, and then we’ll consider the purpose we need to focus on.


1. Character Lessons from Individuals

Some believe that history should confront students with men and women of character and how they are positive role models. So the Age of Exploration is about the explorers’ courage to follow their dreams, and the Civil War is about Lincoln’s determination despite huge obstacles. The problem with this proposal is that it confuses history and biography. Biography is about individuals, but history is about civilizations. It’s about the rise and fall of nations, not the rise and fall of men and women. This kind of approach will end up turning history instruction into something it wasn’t meant to be. Of course, a skilled teacher will point out good character qualities in individuals, but that will be a side course, not the main dish.


2. Fascinating Stories

Some teach history simply because they love it. They love talking about the mystery and intrigue that lie behind familiar names, wars, and dates. Now, don’t get me wrong; I find these things fascinating too. But not everyone does. And if enjoying stories from the past is the reason for history, why not just show movies to students every day? That’ll fascinate everyone, not only the history buffs. Getting students to enjoy history is fine as a by-product of our true purpose, but it can’t be at the core of why we teach history.


3. Developing Patriotism

Patriotism is a virtue. So maybe we teach history to convince students that their country is the greatest in the world’s history. Certainly, history teachers should seek to develop patriotism in students. But if we make patriotism the purpose of our instruction, we will struggle to do a good job of teaching history. America is an exceptional nation, but it hasn’t always done the right thing. If our teaching is going to be honest, our nation’s wrong decisions will need to be taught. We do this not to destroy students’ love for their country but rather to show them how they can make their country better. Patriotism is essential, but our chief purpose must be something else.


The Purpose of History Instruction

Why do we teach history? In my opinion, it’s all about developing wisdom for civic life. In the study of history, we examine how past societies have struggled to respond to the issues and controversies that have confronted them. We engage our students in this examination not because it is entertaining (though it often is). Instead, we are seeking to involve students in a kind of laboratory for decision-making in public life. By teaching the past, as it is presented to us by historians, we hope to lead our young people to develop skills for facing the challenges that will confront them when the burdens of civilization become their own.


The Role of Worldview If we take this as the key reason for studying history, we realize that history’s most important questions cannot be answered by evidence alone. To make sense of history—to know how to use our learning to be wise—we need to bring our worldview to bear on the study.

And what is a worldview? Most basically, it is an orienting narrative. It is a grand story regarding where the world has come from, how things have gone wrong, and what is to be done to make things right. People use their worldview to make sense of the past, propose ways of dealing with the present, and prepare themselves for the future. In particular, historians (and teachers) use their worldview to engage in three key aspects of historical analysis.


1. Selection of Events

Before history can be taught, the historian (and the teacher) has to decide what will be presented—and what will be skipped. In the end, far more will be omitted than included. And how will this decision be made? Worldview. Our orienting narrative will tell us what events are significant enough to present to students. Is there a God? Did Jesus rise from the dead? Is the church of Jesus Christ what the Bible says it is? How we answer these questions will determine what events we focus on (and which ones we will pass over).


2. Moral Judgments

History is little more than trivia unless we judge the past. Who were the good guys? Who were the bad guys? What should have happened? These are challenging questions, of course. But we must attempt to answer them, or we cannot use the study to teach students wisdom for public life. And as we attempt to answer them, we will be guided by our worldview. Is God the judge of all the earth? Is the Bible His Word? Are the moral teachings of Scripture binding on us? These questions determine which path historians and teachers will travel when it comes to making moral judgments in history. The secularist and the Christian have similar views of what happened, but they come to very different conclusions regarding what should have happened.


3. Cultural Identity

When we teach history to students, we want them to develop a sense of what it means to be Russian, what it means to be Pakistani, and, of course, what it means to be American. Not everyone thinks about the world in the same way, and their cultural identity shapes the way people think about the world—and their past shapes their cultural identity. Here we must learn to put selection and moral judgment together to discern cultural identity. The worldview commitments that tell us what is most important in history help us understand what is most important in a people group’s identity. And the worldview beliefs enabling us to judge right and wrong will help us evaluate a nation’s identity—especially our own. Conclusion The purpose of history instruction is to teach young people wisdom for public life. But, as you can see from this overview, not just any approach can deliver. Only education from a biblical worldview can develop in students the wisdom they need. Our young people are heading for troubled times. If they are to live biblically faithful lives, they will need to learn how to apply their worldview to the cultural issues before them. If they base their decision-making on what people around them are saying, they will likely be led astray. But if they base their thinking on Scripture, they can make a difference in this world for Christ. Our job is to give every student the opportunity to think and live Christianly. That is our obligation. That is our privilege.

Dr. Bryan Smith has worked in Christian education for nearly thirty years. He has been a classroom teacher as well as a textbook author. Currently, he serves at BJU Press as the Senior Manager for Biblical Worldview Formation. He and his wife, Becky, have six children.