I found the following question on Quora. I had to answer.
Why do schools teach history instead of something more practical? When and why did the governments across the world decide to add history as a subject And why does it have to be history instead of some other social science like political science or sociology?
For me, I can’t separate those areas to begin with–I never know where dividing line between the disciplines start and finish. In real life nothing lives in isolation. Neither should it in my teaching.
This was my answer:
Yesterday, a student posed a question. It was a good question about a (insert random country here) location about which no student cared. I said, “That’s a good question.”
I told a few stories, and posed a few questions for them to discuss. We made some analogies that ranged from a fight in the cafeteria, to a broken treaty between the State of Connecticut and the Mashantucket Pequots, Japanese internment camps in America, the present-day situation in Israel, decolonization in the world and the effects of hegemony on various immigration patterns… by the time we wove the tale, we had discussed several seemingly unrelated places over a period of a couple thousand years, integrating some key themes and players.
We touched upon things. We related things, we analyzed some questions. Before class ended, I’d sketched graphs and charts on the board–even one had a limit on it, which I introduced as such. “Stick with me…this is college math…what does this mean?”
The subject of what we should teach–which subjects are the most practical–is an important one. It’s not what is taught, it’s how it’s taught and with what goal. History, done well, integrates with all other subjects, sparks curiosity, and helps students to research, analyze, posit, predict, solve, and speak out.
As an undergrad, one of the greatest lessons I learned was from a conversation with Dr. Larry Hudson–a British professor of American history of African descent. His take on the American Revolution was certainly not the one I’d heard in every American textbook–could history be…open to interpretation? That’s no small realization for an 18-year-old. Call that historiography, or research analysis… it’s all in what you do with it.
The second valuable lesson I learned was from a mentor in grad school, Dr. Bob Cvornyek. He researched everything from chain gangs to labor to…baseball. When I tell students “I know a man who gets paid to write about baseball,” it’s a whole new game. History becomes something that motivates them. “You can study anything as long as you back it up.”
Through history they learn to integrate material, conduct and present research, identify quality sources, create, debate… any number of skills you’d be grateful to have in a quality employee, successful entrepreneur, or even interesting person on the street.
History, done well, isn’t about dead guys. It’s really the key to life.