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However, it isn’t just the historical content that matters, it’s also the historical thinking skills.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.
Director of K-12 Education
White House Historical Association