Hunter-Gibbs: Why History Matters?

Why does history matter? Samantha Hunter-Gibbs, director of K-12 education at the White House Historical Association, explains in this thoughtful essay.

I’m a public historian by training and now I primarily work as a museum education professional. My background as a public historian directly ties into why I think history matters. Simply put, history belongs to everyone. It’s a collective story of our shared pasts and I became a public historian so that I could help ensure that collective story reaches as many individuals as possible, not just the ones who choose to study history at a university.

History matters because without it, we are unable to fullyunderstand our current world. Every single event we see today can be contextualized by events in history. Once we understand that context, we’re able to better address our present circumstances which ultimately allows us to work toward creative solutions to problems we encounter daily.

However, it isn’t just the historical content that matters, it’s also the historical thinking skills. For example, history allows us to learn how to identify bias in a source. We can ask: who is the author? What is their perspective? Who is the intended audience? How will that impact the words and tone of this source? When was this source published? How does that time period contextualize the source?

Through history, we learn to think critically and make connections. Why did a particular event happen when it did? What other factors impacted the trajectory of the event? Why does it matter that we know about this event today? Or, to put it succinctly, so what? Studying history allows us to utilize the skills of historians to become thoughtful, enthusiastic participants in our society. Critically engaging with the past allows us to be fully committed to engaging with our present, armed with evidence from history to support our ideas and views.

It’s difficult to point to a single most important event in American history that everyone should know about. At its core, history is a network of connections—events all interacting with one another, overlapping, and weaving together. However, if I had to pick just one topic that I believe is crucial for all Americans to know about, it would be the founding of our country. But, to just study the founding is not enough. It’s howwe study the founding. Often when we study the founding era,we learn about the Founding Fathers and their political ideologies and the meetings of the Continental Congress. But, what about the lives of enslaved people during this period? What does it mean to learn about hypocrisy in our founding principles? Liberty and Justice for all and yet we held people in perpetual bondage. What about the indigenous people whose land was stolen and who were threatened with violence, erasure of their culture, and forced assimilation? What do we learn about women in this period? The women whose rights and lives were tied to their fathers or husbands? Studying the founding in this way leads us to a more comprehensive picture of the founding era and contextualizes the narrative we think we know about how this country came to be. 

Often, the United States’ founding is referenced to serve political purposes: “what would the Founding Fathers think of xpolicy?” Well, what would they think? What else would they need to know to understand the different perspectives on xtoday? Do we care what they think? Or do we care more about what others from the founding era would think? These questions are what allow us to engage critically today. So, by studying the founding era with a broader reach that includes more voices, we can better uphold our ever-evolving ideals as a country. 

There are many ways we can improve the teaching ofAmerican history. First, we need to make it more diverse and accessible. And by “we” I mean museums, archives, historic sites, textbook authors, educational resource creators – all of us. We can’t make materials for teachers that simply tell the same“default narrative.” We also can’t expect teachers to have all the time in the world to search for hard to find resources that will help diversify their curriculum. Our job is to expand the voices and stories in our collections and resources and then make themeasily accessible to educators. 

Above, I’ve outlined why learning history is so important, but it is crucial that we also address why how we learn history is important, too. If we’re simply asking students to read from textbooks and remember dates, the subject will never become relevant or meaningful to them. This leads to the trope of history being boring and not useful in life after formal schooling. We need to share objects, images, oral histories, and other sources that students find meaningful and can connect with. But that doesn’t mean there’s a “one size fits all” approach either. We need to rely on educators to know their students and know what types of materials are relevant to them. Then it’s our job to make those materials available. 

We need to support educators in making these changes by listening to them, creating materials that reflect their ideas and feedback, and make our content as easy to use as possible. We need to work alongside educators to inspire students to think critically about the past and help them to develop the historian skills they need to be engaged, thoughtful, citizens today.

Samantha Hunter-Gibbs

Director of K-12 Education

White House Historical Association

Riccards: Why History

Why does history matter? Dr. Michael P. Riccards, presidential historian and university president, explains in this thoughtful essay.

The industrialist Henry Ford once declaimed, “History is bunk.”  Indeed, if he had read some history he would have known that his much touted anti-Semitic pamphlet “Protocols of Zion” was spurious and a Czarist hoax.  The role of history has been much debated; in a time of educational nihilism nothing is sacred or even self- evident.  When I was president of St Johns College of Santa Fe, I was accused by a board member, Owen Lopez, of trying to introduce history into the Great Books curriculum.  He forgot that the students read Herodotus, Thucydides, and Gibbon as well as the Federalist Papers.

Still one can legitimately inquire, why study history? Why read it? Why do some of us write it?  In our one world-global economy it is even more important to be informed by history, not just ours but other peoples.  We are all provincials.  History makes us cosmopolitans.  There are real and genuine differences between and among peoples.  One of the most startling judgments of our misguided venture in Viet Nam is how little American  policy makersknew of the history Southeast Asia.

Proponents of the study of history liked to say that those who don’t know history are likely to repeat its errors.  That traditional view is probably true, but we must also have the critical skills and intellectual depth to differentiate the past from the present.  For years American leaders relived the Munich analogy where every decent compromise would lead to a Hitler, and thus crippled our ability to respond intelligently to peace overtures.

We not only learn about other cultures but also get a better sense of our own national identity, an extremely important insight in a multicultural democracy.  History is identity.  We are currently undergoing a harsh reevaluation of our history, one being buffeted by critical race theory.  The governor of Florida has proclaimed the need for all students to take courses on American history and civics.  He indicated our students must know about the  FoundingFathers and Abraham Lincoln, but not through critical race perspectives.  How can one possibly understand the Founding Fathers and equally our greatest president without coming to grips with race- they did.  And on the other side how can one “woke” to neglected peoples if we don’t know what we need to awake from.  One of the best teaching tools is the splendid study of the Reconstruction on PBS done by Henry Louis Gates.  But his great series rests on the work of the white historian Eric Foner at Columbia University.

The great historian, Peter Stearns,  insists that we must know history in order to comprehend change, the great driver and consequence of modernity.  We need a historical perspective to understand our lives in a very fluid world.  In addition, in order  to be a good citizen in America we need to understand history, just look at the knowledge we need to deal with the pandemic of 1918-1919, especially as we experience its sister plague the pandemic of 2020-2021.

For teachers of history we need to instruct our students on using transferable skills from history-to assess evidence, to weigh data, to seek out evidence from diverse sources, skills that are prized in high level work experience.  History isn’t just learning about the Civil War or the War of the Roses.  It requires inculcating a lifelong respect for knowledge and for evidence.

To say history is boring is to say that we are boring, even when we are as Shakespeare put it so like the gods in what we have accomplished-a single sole species ready to reach the nearer edge of the universe and moving toward the face of God.

Michael P. Riccards

Presidential Historian

Former President of St. John’s College (NM), Shepherd University, Fitchburg State University

Governor Bryant: Why History Matters

Why does history matter? Phil Bryant, the former Governor of Mississippi, explains in this thoughtful essay.

As a former Professor of American Government, I was always delighted to see the subtle passion of a student who realized the true meaning of American History in their lives. It took some professorial effort to reach a twenty-something-year-old student with the magnitude of the American Revolution. To have them reach that moment of enlightenment realizing their freedom to speak, associate, travel, trade, protect themselves, experience a free press and worship as they are led all exist because of 1776 and the struggles that followed. African American students would be encouraged by the determination of Abraham Lincoln and the thousands who fought and died that they may be made free. History also details the bravery and courageous spirit of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas, Martin Luther King, Thurgood Marshall, Barack Obama, and many others who fought for racial justice. They saw how the 24th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution opened the door to African American voting as did the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Brown v. Board of Education. History became the great equalizer telling the good and the dark side of events that formed this great nation. It has been that way through all of history and the very formation of human creation.

From Adam and Eve’s original sin to world wars, from Hitler to Mother Teresa, good and evil are recorded in history alike. And so it shall always be until the end of time. We cannot demonize or erase history because of mankind’s sins. The most popular history book of all-timerecords a plea to “forgive our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us” and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

History matters because it remains our pathway to the future. It begins as a trail through the forest, a trace to follow to a better place. Over time, it became gravel roads with twists and turns, bridges that span the waters and send us to the other side. A two-lane highway passing destructive battle fields and victory celebrations. History has become an interstate where we travel at great speeds hardly noticing the beauty of the landscape on either side. But on we travel. Yesterday was but a mile marker and tomorrow the next exit. Unfortunately, there is no GPS to the future only lessons on the road left behind. We learn from the tragedies and carnage along the way and do our best not to repeat them.

Phil Bryant

Governor of Mississippi, 2012-2020

Member, President’s Advisory 1776 Commission

C-SPAN on Why History Matters

Over on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, DFI CEO Patrick Riccards led a 40-minute segment on the state of American history instruction and the findings of DFI’s recent history knowledge survey.

The full segment can be found here –

Washington Examiner: Americans Don’t Know General Eisenhower

Over at the Washington Examiner, Paul Bedard reports on the latest National research from the Driving Force Institute, focusing on how the average American doesn’t know Dwight Eisenhower was a general during World War II. Of course, today is Ike’s birthday.

The full article can be found here: Happy reading!

DFI: Most Americans Still Can’t Pass U.S. Citizenship Test

Oct. 6, 2021 — During a time that saw an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, the percentage of Americans who could pass the U.S. Citizenship Test is only 42%, but that still marks an increase of six points since advocates initially conducted the survey three years ago. The Driving Force Institute (DFI) says the fact that nearly 6 in 10 Americans could not pass a citizenship test highlights the urgent need for new approaches to teaching and learning American history.

Only 17% know that the U.S. Constitution was written in 1787; a mere 27% correctly understand that Benjamin Franklin was a U.S. diplomat (36% thought he invented the lightbulb); and less than half (43%) know that Woodrow Wilson was president during World War I. 

The survey uses the same questions that those who apply for citizenship must answer; improved responses were seen in a number of areas. For instance, the percentage of Americans who know the United States fought Japan, Germany, and Italy in World War II has gone from 50% to 55% since 2018. 

The percentage of Americans who know that nine Justices serve on the U.S. Supreme Court increased from 43% to 51%.

People applying for citizenship must correctly answer 12 out of 20 questions on the test. Even though most survey takers failed the test, 63% said the test’s difficulty was “about right.” 

The DFI survey, conducted by Lincoln Park Strategies, has a margin of error of ±3.1 with a random sample of 1,000 American citizens.

Patrick Riccards, founder and chief executive officer of DFI, says, “We launched our initiative to make American history content interesting and relevant for today’s learners, especially females and people of color. The latest survey shows we’re not moving fast enough. Americans are rightfully proud of their country, but they risk losing what makes it special if more of us don’t understand and appreciate our history.” 

DFI’s UNTOLD series on YouTube is the home for short formvideos; it includes sections highlighting Black, Latino, and women’s history; DFI also makes related materials available to educators, whether in a traditional classroom, virtual or hybrid setting, including a comprehensive professional development series created in partnership with the Kentucky Valley Education Collective

Makematic and DoGoodery create and distribute the videos. DFI is also collaborating with the American Battlefield Trust, New York Historical Society, iCivics, Smithsonian, and others on the creation of specific video series for high school students. 

DFI uses an integrated set of efforts designed to get at the three legs of the history instruction stool:

Support instruction for current K–12 American history teachers, designed to both improve their own understanding of American history and empower them to better connect with their students and make history an exciting and worthwhile pursuit of study. As an incentive, teachers who successfully participate in DFI receive micro-credentials and badges that signify they are part of a national network committed to improving American history instruction.

Curriculum design for both traditional classrooms and out-of-school-time environments, 

changing the very way American history is taught in communities across the nation; and

Direct-to-consumer engagement, providing interesting and dynamic learning opportunities to students (and by extension,their families) through a digital platform.

To meet these needs, DFI launched a pilot project that recruitssmall teams of educators in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. This project helps shape the development of the website content, ensuring the most effective utilization possible.

Ultimately, DFI will seek to develop an online professional development platform, a series of “historians’ toolkits,” models for a “flipped” American history curriculum, and an archive of games and simulations for educators to use with students.






Stacey Finkel


Gallagher: History is Vital

Why does history matter? Dr. Gary Gallagher from the University of Virginia explains in this thoughtful essay.

All American citizens should care about our history. We should care because an understanding of history is vital in a democratic republic that functions best with the type of informed citizenry the founding generation believed necessary for any successful experiment in self-government. Ignorance about the American past gets in the way of fruitful public debate about current issues of surpassing importance. This ignorance affects what passes for discussion of politics and other issues on the 24-hour news channels, on the Internet, and in print media. A shrill tone often predominates in all of these settings, frequently set up by “analysis” that is strikingly uninformed. The “news” emerges from a world of hyperbolic froth, where everything reported is the worst, the biggest, the best, unprecedented in its implications. I think there must be a course somewhere titled “Hyperbole 101,” and perhaps another titled “The Long Reach of History: From Last Thursday to Today.” I say this because the grasp of history, as it exists in much of the media, typically extends back approximately a week. The media often engage the world in much the fashion of little Labrador puppies. Every day brings a fresh adventure in discovery untethered to any longer perspective that might add welcome context and buffering.

Political discussion suffers especially from a lack of historical framing. The handling of immigration over the past few years, for example, betrays little appreciation for the fact that we have engaged in similar public debates throughout our history—or that the vitriol characteristic of those debates makes the current ones seem almost tame. Often lost is awareness that percentages of foreign-born residents are not remarkably high right now. In 1861, as the loyal states prepared to go to war to suppress the Confederate rebellion and restore the Union, almost one-third of all the military-age males in the country had been born outside the United States. For the entire period between 1860 and 1920, the percentage of foreign-born residents exceeded that of today.

Neither are we more divided politically in the early 21st century than ever before—though anyone who habitually watches Fox News or MSNBC or CNN, follows Twitter, or even tunes in to the more mainstream networks or consults flagship newspapers might not realize this. Rants about how divided we are do not help set the stage for rational consideration of problems facing our nation. A leitmotif in coverage of the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections and of wrangles in Washington and the hinterlands suggests that we are witnessing a unique breakdown of national civility, and that criticisms of the president—whether Barack Obama or Donald Trump—have reached new levels of intensity. The only way to argue these things is to know nothing about previous American political history. In 1804, the vice president of the United States killed the most famous member of the opposition party in a duel. In 1856, a member of the House of Representatives beat a senator on the floor of the Senate into bloody insensibility. I strongly suspect that Abraham Lincoln, or John Adams or many other presidents for that matter, would find much familiar about political criticism directed toward our recent presidents. As for our never having been so divided, historically literate people can offer the Civil War as an obvious example that puts the lie to that idea.

I believe the era of the Civil War is the most important single period in our history. Only by coming to terms with the Civil War, as well as with how people have remembered and used it in politics and popular culture, can anyone understand the broader arc of United States history. The war functioned as both an end and a beginning. It resolved huge issues left unresolved by the generation that won independence and wrote the Constitution, providing closure for long-term sectional debates about slavery and the permanence of the Union. United States victory in turn set the stage for economic and territorial expansion. Postwar Reconstruction, however, failed to prevent political and social strife relating to race, to the relationship between the central government and the states and localities, and to meanings of U.S. citizenship. Ongoing controversies over the Confederate memorial landscape constitute just one element in the Civil War’s longstanding power to affect the nation and its citizens. Sadly, some school administrators, both public and private, support avoiding the Civil War because discussions about slavery, massive bloodshed, and controversial memorial landscapes can cause discomfort among students and their parents. But a free society should confront its past, warts and all. The many sharp edges and troubling dimensions of the Civil War must be set against uplifting and empowering elements that helped create a better version of the founders’ republic.

My point is simply that if we, as a people, had a more certain sense of our history, we would be in a better position to know that almost nothing is new, that we have overcome immense problems in the past, and that we almost certainly will do so again. 

Gary W. Gallagher

John L. Nau III Professor of History Emeritus

University of Virginia

An Interview With Pulitzer Prize Winner James McPherson

The Driving Force Institute was privileged to talk with Dr. James McPherson, history professor emeritus at Princeton University, about why American history matters. Following is a summary of that discussion.

DFI: What do you say to those who think history is irrelevant? Why does it indeed matter? 

McPherson: The past is vitally connected to the present by hundreds of unbreakable threads.  If we want to understand the world in which we live today, we must know and understand how and whey it came to be the way it is over the years and centuries of the past.  A person who wakes up one morning with a case of total amnesia would be unable to function–he wouldn’t know who he is, how to behave, how to function, and so on.  The same is true for a person who does not know the past of his society–he would know nothing about that society and how to function within it.

DFI: We, like you, believe that American history knowledge is important, relevant, and critical. In your own words, why is this the case? 

McPherson: One cannot function as an intelligent citizen in American society and polity without a knowledge of the evolution over time of that structure of that society and polity any more than one can function in a family without a knowledge of the structure of the family and how it got to be that way over time.

DFI: What is the single most important event in American history that every person should study and understand? 

McPherson: The Civil War and Reconstruction, whose results are embodied in the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution and a plethora of laws and court decisions and cultural and social and economic institutions that continue to shape the society we live in today.

DFI: What ways could we improve the teaching of American history? How can we support educators in making these changes?

McPherson: History is a thrilling story of change over time, and it can engage and excite students if it is taught at a story rather than as a congeries of dates and names to be memorized.

James McPherson is the George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History, Emeritus at Princeton University. McPherson received the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. The former president of the American Historical Association, he earned his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University.

The Start of Why History Matters

Why does history matter? Despite the public events of recent months and years, too many Americans – particularly young people – believe that history isn’t relevant to their interests or their futures. At a time when all should be thinking like historians, too few see the value and need in learning history.

In 2019, the Driving Force Institute launched an initiative to make the teaching and learning of history more interesting. Through a series of provocative, short-form videos, DFI’s “Untold History” shares stories of the people, the events, and artifacts that are essential to our nation’s story, but are too often not taught in a K-12 survey history course. 

As we prepare to celebrate July 4th, DFI is launching a new initiative, Why History Matters, to help educators and learners better explain why history learning is so important. This effort has been created in honor of Walter W, Buckley, Jr, an integral part of DFI and a passionate advocate for American history. As part of this work, DFI is soliciting short essays, videos, and podcasts from leading historians, American history experts, and educators from across the country explaining why it is both important and necessary to learn of our nation’s history.

These essays will also be provided to K-12 teachers across the country as a tool to inspire their students to learn about the history of the United States and to demonstrate why the teaching and learning of American history is so important to our nation’s strength.

Educators are asked to reflect on a number of questions DFI has heard through its years of research with teachers and secondary school students across the United States, including:

  • What do you say to those who think history is irrelevant? Why does it indeed matter?
  • We, like you, believe that American history knowledge is important, relevant mandatory critical. In your own words, why is this the case?
  • What is the single most important issue in American history that every person should study and understand?
  • What ways could we improve the teaching of American history? How can we support educators in making these changes. 

All educators interested in sharing their thoughts on the these or related questions are encouraged to submit their essays to Financial stipends are available for those participate in multiple components (an essay and appearing on the new podcast) of this effort. Any questions should be directed to

– P. Riccards