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