18 Oct 2012

Why study history?

In teaching history, besides the general object of personal discipline and development, which doubtless will in all cases be prominent in the mind of the teacher, our main object will be to produce some degree of retention of the facts taught. Retention is of two distinct sorts, --assimilative and mechanical. Assimilative retention ...is the great purely intellectual object we set before ourselves as educators; and mere mechanical memory will for this prove a valueless or comparatively valueless substitute. It is surely a wiser plan, more economical, more conducive both to permanence and to accuracy, rather to leave our undigested facts stored on the shelves of our libraries, where at need they may readily become available, than to cram them painfully into the unwilling brain to the exclusion of food more profitable. The mechanical memory may be indeed in some cases a gift of great value; but since the invention of written records its value in ordinary circumstances has fallen to a discount. The assimilative memory, on the other hand,--the memory which is alive, which consists of organized ideas, appropriated generalizations--is a memory for which bookshelves can furnish no substitute. By the fact of assimilation the individuality has been affected; the knowledge assimilated has become a vital and integral portion of the individual essence; it has become living knowledge, and henceforth, given light and air, and rain from heaven, it will grow and entwine itself through the whole labyrinth of human existence. In the mechanical memory the seed-corn has been hoarded up in the barn, as so much provender; in the assimilative memory it has been planted in a fruitful soil.

History: History and Fiction by H. B. Parents' Review Volume 5, 1894, pp 255-259

What am I trying to achieve when I have Jemimah read from the pages of Abraham Lincoln's World or Story of the World or History of Australia?  Is it not that I am hoping that she will learn from the experiences, right or wrong, of those who came before her?  Am I not wanting her to heed their warnings, their failures, their barbarities, and make herself, therefore, a better and more capable citizen of modern Australian society than they were in their times?  Surely when we study history we want to take the experiences of those we are studying, and make them our own? 

Why, then, are we so worried about the whos, whens and wheres instead of the whys?

This lovely quote by H. B. (whoever he or she may be) in the Parents' Review asks this question too.  She (I'm guessing that she's a she) points out that it is more sensible to leave our historical facts on the shelves of our libraries, or indeed in their modern equivalent, the ether that is the World Wide Web, where we can access them at the click of a mouse, than to cram them into an unwilling brain.  She's right too.  It is so easy for me to open my iPad and google whenever I want to know stuff. 

So why then do we need to remember history at all?  We no longer consider that knowledge for knowledge's sake makes us better people.  To know the dates of history might once have indicated that we were cleverer; more educated.  It might have procured for us a good job in an excellent company.  It doesn't now.  So why learn? Is it good enough to analyse and study and just forget?  I'm sure you will agree with me  that we do want our children to remember the substance of what is taught as well as the lessons learned.  We do want them to know the whos, whens and wheres as well as the whys of history.

H. B. believes that history that is brought alive, that has been assimilated to become a part of the person himself, will grow and form links with all the other knowledge that is stored in that unwilling brain. Only then can we mould that knowledge to make it ours.  Only then can we take that character study and learn from it.  From reading and assimilating history and forming links we can learn about people and how societies function.  We can look at what happened in the past and as a consequence we can see how things came to be as they are now.  From history we form a National Identity.  We look at what happened in the past that makes us Australian, distinct from the mother country that was England.  When we know the whos, whens and wheres of history we can contrast and compare.  Why did he succeed when he did not?  What makes him good and her bad?

When we study history in a way that allows that allow us the assimilate the data into a useful form, one that allows us to form opinions about what we feel and what we believe, that allows us to know how the world works, then, and only then, can we begin to know how to take the experiences of others and make them our own.History will stop being a series of unrelated facts, best accessed at the click of a mouse, and become a part of us.  A part that will make us better.  A part that will help us know who we are.

People have studied history for a long time.  Despite that, we still make the same mistakes.  There are still wars.  There is still immorality.  There is still poverty.  History repeats again, and again, and again.  We don't just study the past so that we can understand the future.  When we study history in a way that makes it part of us, when we study the world through the eyes of other, we have context and coherence.  Then and only then can we begin to grapple with the great moral questions - the whys, instead of the whos and whens.  Only then can we take the lessons of history and make them our own.


  1. Wow. I really love this post Jeanne. It really made me look at history and all our learning in a different life. It seems like I have to be told this 10,000 times before I will get it. ;)

  2. What a great quote! Excellent, excellent post Jeanne. I love your conclusion.


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