History Matters

Charlotte Houston and Sofia Ruiz

“Why do I need to know that our ninth president died after four weeks in office?!,” frustrated junior Veronika Pister yells at her computer screen, as she starts yet another Quizlet card. Learning history can sometimes seem like a waste of our precious youth, especially when we’re forced to commit to memory the length of the Panama Canal, or when we have to learn about the 13 colonies. Again. As irrelevant as it feels to memorize all these names of dead people, learning history does serve a purpose.

Looking back, some adults today may remember their long-past days of schooling and think of history as just another class, where a teacher lectured, the student took notes, and the tests were based off of memorizing names and dates. Even people who love history today had trouble making meaningful memories or connections in their history classes. “In high school, history wasn’t terribly interesting because I couldn’t see how it would apply to me,” former AP European History and Psychology teacher Paul Fitzgerald said.

But, classroom learning has evolved, and a more active teaching style has perhaps managed to make learning about the founding fathers a little more interesting. “It’s not necessarily about remembering facts, it’s about engaging in a dialogue with people about the human condition,” AP European History and AP Government teacher Xavier Frippiat said. Newer education standards focus on analysis of historical events and people, discussion of time periods, and projects that may lead to a deeper understanding of the material, especially with Common Core. “One of the most important skills we try to teach in history is critical thinking, and discerning a bigger story from a smaller moment,” said US and World History teacher Greg McAdam.

Yet, for Pister and most every other history student, the burning question may still arise in the middle of reading a 30 page chapter and halfway through a paragraph on the rotund nature of 27th president William Taft: “Why does this matter?” For different people, one answer may be more important than others, but ultimately, most of the reasons we learn history are common ground for all students. We learn history to understand the world in a much deeper context than just the present can provide. Through our knowledge of the past, and learned skills of analysis and comparison, we can be educated enough to really decide what we want out of governments, our communities, and even our lives.

Presidential election season is one of the most important times to know context on issues, and about the process itself. As Americans, we have a civic duty to be educated and to use that education when we go out and vote. “It’s not by accident that learning history is a staple in every basic democracy,” Frippiat said. We need to know historical precedent, and we need to know all the regrettable events of our past. For example, in 2016, tensions have been running high about immigration policy, and with talk about walls and deportation of legal citizens, one might assume that these campaign promises would be impossible to follow up on. We’re the land of the free! We would never!

However, in 1882 we passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited all entry of Chinese laborers into the US for ten years. Later was the Immigration Act of 1924, which completely restricted immigrants from Asia, employed literacy tests, and placed a quota on incomers based on the amount of their nationality already present in the land of opportunity. Even more recently, America rounded up the Japanese and placed them in internment camps during World War II. Rash action in the face of immigration due to racial fears and supposed overcrowding is not unprecedented, and so we can’t dismiss some politicians’ campaign promises about this issue as hyperbole or impossible to actually implement.

Another way we can relate the present to the past is through some of the ways that candidates express themselves. For example, it has recently become popular to compare Republican Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler. “We don’t want to equate the two, but Trump does seem to express himself in the same way,” Frippiat said. “For example, he has sharply criticized foreign treaties and how they have crippled our economic development, his idea of national rebirth is a classic reliable theme of Hitler (‘Make America Great Again’), he points to enemies within and without (Mexicans and ISIS), and his supporters have been known to deal with dissenting views with violence. That’s just to name a couple off the top of my head.”

So is this a fair comparison? While this might be simplifying both situations, as Trump has not yet invaded Poland nor committed genocide, it is still interesting and possibly vital that we look at comparisons between the two, and don’t fall into a similar situation as the one that the world faced in the 1940s.

What if we only knew a few of these events? What if we didn’t know any of them? Our decisions from who to support politically to how we view ourselves as Americans can vary widely based on how much of this country’s history one knows. Although some of the history may seem tedious, each bit of information can be essential to being able to put the pieces together and think for oneself. Understanding things like why Nixon was voted in instead of Humphrey may be worth knowing, especially to avoid another incident like Watergate.

History repeats itself. Learning about the mistakes of our forefathers can be painful, but necessary. Millions of lives have been lost as a result of these mistakes, and the only way to avoid even more being wasted is to educate ourselves on the past. “I love teaching history because there’s always more to learn. I’m constantly thinking about things differently, and gaining a new perspective,” AP US History teacher James Lathrop said. Human history has had a lot of time to experiment and figure out what works and what doesn’t, and it would make things a whole lot easier for us if we just looked at the facts.