cj#520> Why Study History?

1996-04-10

Richard Moore

Dear cj,

        My sincere apologies for giving this list so little attention
recently.  Fortunately, the reverse-economics of internet cause people to
unsubscribe when they get _too much_ for their money, not _too little_.

        I've got a queue of things you've sent in that I will post very
soon -- with embarrasment that some may be untimely by the time you see
them.

        Since I've got it in my paste-buffer, I will share this essay I
just posted to the "Philosophy of History" list, in answer to the question:
"What do I tell my son when he asks `Why should I study history?' ?"

________________________________________________________________

        I love these kinds of seemingly simple questions... they force one
to dig deeper to find out why certain things seem "self-evident" to
oneself.  Several points come up for me...

        1) History, like most "subjects", is naturally fascinating and
compelling to nearly everyone -- the school system seems designed to
systematically kill creativity and the natural desire-to-inquire by all of
the tactics listed below (some of which have already been posted by
others).

        Consider: If walking were taught in school, we'd have thousands of
people who grow up unable to walk competently, and who express a lack of
interest in the activity.  My kid's pediatrician said once: "If the parent
use the toilet, the kids will too when they're ready, and if the parents
use a knife and fork, the kids will too -- with no specific training or
incentives required."   The anti-educational school tactics -- perhaps not
accidental -- include:

                a) presenting "facts" dryly
                b) seeking memorization rather than internal searching
                c) emhasizing "right" and "wrong" answers
                d) treating "learning" as work rather than play
                e) grading and tests (reflecting a self-fulfilling
                   and unsubstantiable judgement that kids "don't want to
                   learn")
                f) driven by curricula rather than curious impulse
                g) casting "teacher" as disciplinarian and truth-knower
                   rather than goad-to-inspiration.
                h) forcing a rigid schemata of learning -- reading for example
                   is made unnaturally slow-rate by the stupid idea of learning
                   phonics  -- everyone will discover phonics for themselves
                   as a by-product -- and learning it first destroys scanning
                   of whole phrases at a glance, which is well within our
                   cognitive capabilities, but tough to "teach".  Grammar
                   is an even more stupid invention for kids to be burdened
                   with -- every uneducated bushman speaks only in perfect
                   and complex sentences from an early age.

        2) History-perception is KNOWN to be the primary cognitive
mechanism by which people judge political options.  For that reason, all
nations treat it as a propaganda opportunity to condition children to
accept the power status-quo.  In the case of the U.S., the propaganda
strategy seems to be to make history as boring as possible, to create a
stupid population that can be led by the nose Orwell-style -- sending arms
to ally-Iraq for a decade, and then hating Iraq as an enemy-demon the next
decade.

        3) One way to kindle the URGENT INBORN NEED to understand where we
came from and what it all means (history) is to offer kids beautiful
well-written stories to read (or to read them out loud).  I _hated_ history
in school, but when I later started reading biographies I found there's
very little else I want to waste my time reading -- and the time-sequence
tied to a personality makes events stick in my mind indelibly.  Twain comes
to mind.

---

        Someone said that history, as taught, doesn't sufficently emphasize
civilization and its development.  I HEARTILY disagree!   My perception is
that history teaching is cast _primarily_ as a glorification of
"civilization" and imperialism.  Even those of us who take history
seriously in later life continue to be blinded by our early conditioning
toward this gross narrowing of historical perspective.

        Everyone comes out of school with the "truth" that the fall of Rome
was a singular historical disaster, and that history just marked-time until
large political units could be re-established.  Why aren't we taught about
the attitudes and viewpoints of those who overthrew the Roman Empire???  I
for example am of Anglo-German extraction -- why in the hell was I taught
that Egyptians, Greeks, and Italians constitute "my" history??  (They're
only one thread!)


Thanks for the question,
Richard




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