Commentary: The Importance of History in Your Child’s Education

It’s silly to think that there is any one subject in a child’s education that is more important than another, regardless of what a lot of professionals like to think of whatever they majored or received a PhD in. But there are some subjects whose utility society has never outgrown. One of these is history, as indispensable a study as they come. But history is a subject that is experiencing some rough times in schools today, and in this article I’d like to demonstrate why it nonetheless is a vital field for every child to study, and why parents and tutors should really strive to ensure that their children/pupils become very familiar with this subject.

Cicero, the ancient Roman statesmen, philosopher, and political theorist, once said that to remain unaware of the past was to forever remain a child. He was right. The avid study of history imparts an awareness of the external world in a child that not only elevates the mind, but lends maturity to it as well.

History allows an individual to get a grasp on the fundamentals of human nature that transcend culture and time. History shows us how human beings react under various pressures, both internal and external.  Most importantly, however, history teaches consequences, cause and effect, and culture.

It is not only important for children, juveniles, and young adults to learn that their actions have consequences (a lesson that is easy enough to learn from experience only) in a general sense. No, it is more important for children to learn what kind of consequences will accrue to them once a given action is taken, and to be able to deduce not only the immediate consequences, but the indirect consequences, as well. In a sense, this skill is similar to that which is required by a good chess player, that is, thinking ahead, and calculating the proper moves given a particular situation.

To have proper foresight, one must have either had a myriad of experiences and thus be able to see the myriad of possibilities that can result from a single action, or one can learn from others who faced similar choices and learn from their mistakes. As the old proverb goes, a wise person learns from other’s mistakes.

A good student of history will have not only this capability but also the capability to guess the probability of certain possibilities coming to pass, regardless of whether we are referencing a chess game, a job search, friendships, romances, or politics. History is not the dry old recitation of who did what when; any good student or teacher of history knows that. History is not about knowing that in 1066 the Normans invaded Britain (knowing the general time frame is far more important than knowing the exact date). It is about knowing that the Normans did invade Britain, knowing what motivated them to do so, and what consequences arose from a foreign element forcing its way into an environment very much hostile to it.

History also teaches us why things are the way they are in the current world. This again relates to understanding cause and effect. If you’ve ever wondered why many in the West use the alphabet while many cultures in the East do not, history has your answer. And that answer (the dissemination of the Latin alphabet by the Romans) has had a profound impact on history. It’s why you type using a keyboard; it’s you have the luxury of liking one kind of font over another. Most importantly, it demonstrates that simple, practical, and functional idea can revolutionize the way human beings think and interact with their world. This is a valuable lesson for the younger members of society.

History teaches geography, too, since one cannot even begin to get a good grasp on history and its lessons without first understanding Earth’s geography and the locations of nations, both past and present. And since geography is such an understudied and poorly understood subject, why not simply kill two birds with one stone? As a child and a adolescent, I remember taking geography courses, and I remember that I did learn something from them. But I also remember that it was history that instilled in me a real knowledge of the Earth and what man had made of it. Now, no news piece leaves me scratching my head, wondering, “where is that place? And what are the people like who live there?”

History can teach style, too. A good education in history will bring students in contact with the writings of many superb English and American authors such as Edward Gibbon, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Thomas Jefferson, and more. Regularly encountering prose from such luminaries is one sound method of improving the writing capacities of a young person.

History can teach philosophy, too, since it has been mankind’s systems of thought which have propelled the progress (and regress) of mankind throughout the ages. Besides teaching students how to think critically (perhaps the most crucial skill of them all), philosophy can teach students the power of a well-though out idea attuned to the zeitgeist, while at the same time transcending the time in which it is born. That’s heady stuff for a child, but if you can get him/her thinking along those lines, then you’ve helped to ensure that that young person has taken a big step into  a larger world.

History also teaches us about culture. This is invaluable for gaining a higher perspective of oneself and one’s society. Culture always instills biases into us, and that’s normal. Only by studying other cultures however, do we actually see ourselves for what we are. Indeed, the study of another culture is not only to touch the ways of others, but to grasp our own ways. Thus, history can teach tolerance, not only because it is rife with examples of intolerance, but it is also a testament to the power of what understanding others can do for the benefit of mankind. Every period in a civilization that stretched out beyond its border to know what lay beyond did so invariably just before the dawn of its golden age. For young children, that can set a powerful example while setting their imagination aflame, which leads me to my last point.

History is beneficial to study; that much is clear. But it also nourishes the creative and imaginative side of the soul. There is something in history for everyone, whether it be the history of politics, art, literature, music, business, language, etc. And the most wonderful thing about studying history is that it provides inspiring examples of individuals who fulfilled their goals and created meaning for themselves in life. For some children, Alexander the Great will stimulate the imagination; for others, it would be Picasso, or Georgia O’Keefe; for others, Bach; still for others, it could be Rumi. We cherish such people because they act as a lighthouse for our mind, beckoning us on to a more wondrous shore. And by seeing women and men in history who had the presence of mind to accomplish what they wanted, humans often receive the encouragement and stimulation they need to achieve something that will be meaningful to themselves and to society. And this is a luxury not reserved for the historian alone. Even mathematician stands in awe of the historical genius of Newton.

The benefits, then, of studying history are many, so be sure that your child or pupil understands this subject as best they can. For even a cursory understanding of the past will serve children well throughout their life.


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