November 27th, 2009 by mrpowell2
Why do most people think that memorizing historical facts is useless?
Because the way history is taught nowadays, it generally is.
Here’s a great example…
Who hasn’t been asked this question in what passes for a history or “social studies” class over the past fifty years?
What is worse, the question is now asked in a multiple choice format, with something like the following possible answers:
d) none of the above
e) all of the above
Don’t laugh! A good number of publicly-schooled kids today would pick 1776! (See this representative sample of high school students’ knowledge of history, courtesy of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.)
America’s students’ (and their parents’) knowledge of history is so poor because they were taught that the purpose of history was to learn seemingly useless facts like “when the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock” and “who wrote the Declaration of Independence.”
Most students cannot fathom how an entire profession can exist whose purpose it is to collect disconnected atoms of antiquated information of no relevance to real life, but they can sense on some level that it is wrong. Thus they view history class as an exercise in meeting society’s irrational educational requirements, and they look to escape from those requirements as soon as possible. What is worse, the smarter kids don’t just shrug and move on, they get angry and cynical, because their time and effort is being wasted so egregiously.
The writers of Calvin and Hobbes may be able to put a humorous spin on it, but the truth is that viewing historical knowledge as the intellectual equivalent of an appendix is a tragedy.
Why? Because the empowerment that one can derive from history is real, and it can only be derived from history. A mind equipped with proper historical knowledge understands how the world around it came to be (for better, and for worse), can see where civilization is headed, and more fully appreciates the man-made values that make life worth living. By contrast, a mind that is not equipped with the unique perspective that history can provide is stranded in a world shaped by forces it does not understand, moving in a direction it cannot predict, surrounded by values it cannot fully appreciate and defend.
Consider the question of when the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. To know that this event occurred in 1620 is not useless — as long as it is understood within its proper context.
In part, that context includes knowing, for instance, that the Jamestown colony was already well underway (since 1607) and that colonists in Virginia had even created the first representative assembly, the Virginia House of Burgesses, a year before the pilgrims arrived. The story of Virginia’s more secular and commercially oriented colony and its traditions of political freedom is typically glossed over in modern textbooks, and yet it is arguably more important than that of New England. While the latter ultimately produced such greats as James Otis, Samuel Adams, and John Adams, the former’s history culminated in George Washington, James Madison, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Jefferson. Unquestionably, without Virginia and the Virginians, the American Revolution would never have happened.
But knowing about specific events from the past (such as the histories of the various thirteen colonies), collecting them into “Piles, higher and Deeper” (that’s what “PhD” stands for in history!), and being able to perform academic comparisons with them is not the ultimate purpose of history. The purpose of studying history is to develop the trait of historical-mindedness -- the ability to use the past as a resource for living in the present.
Where does 1620 fit in such a perspective? For one, knowing that the pilgrims were escaping religious persecution during the period of the “divine right” monarchy of James I is significant, because the story of the religious civil conflicts in Britain following the Reformation is one of history’s important illustrations of the pitfalls of integrating Church and State. There is a lesson involved in this story that demonstrates a universal truth applicable to human life.
Ironically, the Pilgrims did not learn this lesson. Even though they are often portrayed as seeking “religious freedom,” they were as intolerant and theocratic as the England they left behind — indeed more so, as the Merrymount settlers could attest. That is why people like Roger Williams were forced to leave Massachusetts in the1630s, and why tolerationism in colonies like Pennsylvania and Maryland was such an important development in colonial history. It was these productive contrasts to the oppressive Puritanism of Massachusetts — paired with other such instructive contrasts from history — that made possible the greatest advance in secularism in the history of world government: the American Constitution and Bill of Rights.
The story of 1620 is but one episode in a long chain of logical developments that carries through the Revolutionary period and brings us to a conflict that continues to simmer in American culture. Hence its further relevance. Some of the oppressive elements of Puritanism remain in the thinking of many Americans. There are those, for instance, who view it as entirely legitimate that the government should legislate on matters of conscience, as long as they perceive such legislation to be compatible with their interpretation of Christianity, thus making the return of theocracy to America a very real possibility. These views are not, however, compatible with America’s founding principles, that in Thomas Jefferson’s words (from the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom) “our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions,” and they are contrary to all the progress that has been achieved since 1620.
Thankfully, the genius of the architects of the Constitution continues to protect us to this day. However, to sustain the irreplaceable value of secularism in government consistently during our own lives, we will need the same historical insight that went into creating it. It is only by studying history that one can learn not only that the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620, but also all the crucially connected information, such as their reasons for leaving England and the kind of colony they created, as part of the whole story which renders that knowledge meaningful and applicable to life here and now. It is only by means of the lessons of history that we can accept with the same conviction as Thomas Jefferson the need for a “wall of separation between church and state.”
If the memorization of historical information were widely taught as a component of a proper history education that stresses these types of revealing and relevant stories from the past, then memorization would not be viewed as useless, it would be seen as worthwhile.
For a more detailed explanation of the value of memorization in history education, see my article in Secular Homeschooling Magazine, Issue #9, The Importance of Memorizing History. And stay tuned to this blog for more upcoming articles on this important subject, including practical tips on how to foster meaningful memorization.