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