Friday, March 20, 2009

Richardson's Rules of Order, Part I: Why Study History?

Our first post comes from Heather Cox Richardson, professor of history at UMass, Amherst. Richardson is the author of a number of books on Reconstruction, the West, and 19th-century America. Her latest book, Innocence Lost: American Politics and the Road to Wounded Knee, will be published by Basic Books in 2009. Richardson is also director of the History Institute at UMass, which provides in-service training for K-12 teachers in Western Massachusetts through its weekday Conversations Series, day-long workshops, and summer seminars.

Here, Richardson offers up her thoughts on the study and teaching of history. This is the first installment of "Richardson's Rules of Order," a handbook for students. "I make no claims to represent how other scholars approach classroom learning," she says, "although some of what you find here may be of use in other courses."

"Richardson's Rules of Order, Part I: Why Study History?"
Heather Cox Richardson

History is the study of how and why things happen. What creates change in human society? What stops it? Why do people act in certain ways? Are there patterns in human behavior? What makes a society successful? What makes one fail?

These larger questions break down into smaller (but still big!) ones: Do great leaders create change, or do they follow popular trends? Is it economic prosperity that permits experimentation with new kinds of government? Do elites control society, or is it the less visible masses that move a nation one direction or another? How does the media affect the way we perceive others? Does someone’s gender change the way s/he sees the world? Are people motivated by power? By money? By religion? By a sense of fairness? By fear? How do societies come to embrace discrimination? What makes them break down discriminatory barriers?

Every single person needs to be able to think critically about these issues and the many, many others like them. You need to know how YOU think the world works. Your answers will be different than anyone else’s, since you have unique experiences that color the way you think about things, but you must be able to analyze your world intelligently in order to participate responsibly in society. When you pick a career, you’re making a statement about how you think society works. When you buy a car, when you send your kid to a certain preschool, when you buy a tube of toothpaste, when you volunteer your time for a charity… you’re making a statement about how you think society works. And when you vote, you make a very strong statement about how you think society works.

When you study history, you’re not just studying the history of, for example, colonial America. You’ll learn a great deal about the specifics of colonial America in such a class, of course, but you’ll also learn about the role of economics in the establishment of human societies and about how class and racial divisions can either weaken the stability of a government or be used to shore it up. While it’s unlikely that your boss in some high tech company is going to fire you if you can’t rattle off the events that led to the establishment of racial slavery in the American colonial Chesapeake, it’s extremely likely that, during your lifetime, you will see the members of some group here or elsewhere whipping up racial or ethnic fears in order to solidify their power. In that event, you must be able to weigh what you hear and see, deciding for yourself if those attacks are legitimate or are propaganda to preserve the interests of a certain segment of society. Why? Because your reaction to such a situation will help to determine its outcome, and it is highly unlikely that simply accepting everything you hear will lead to a good result. Learning to think through societal issues is critical to the establishment of a just society, and it is what history will teach you.

Besides, we have all the good stories.

1 comment:

Jeff Vanke said...

Well put! You end with a good specific example of why historical knowledge and (mis)use matters for citizenship and society, not just the platitude that they matter.