Why does history even matter?

by Professor of History Moryam VanOpstal


One of the hazards of being a teacher is having your basic life choices challenged on a regular basis. It’s the classic student uppercut, and it (The Question) comes at least once a year: “Hey, why does history even matter?!” When stress levels are at their highest, sometimes it’s followed by the left hook: “Why does SCHOOL even matter?!”

A new APUSH teacher wanted help after he was blindsided by the question recently, and the teacherly profession sprang into action. This wasn’t exactly an original question, after all, and other teachers began sharing their go-to answers: “Because, even if you forget everything else, you’ll learn critical thinking skills” — “Because citizens need to be informed” — and, one of my personal favorites, “Because you’ve walked in on the last ten minutes of this movie we call history, and you want to know what’s going on” — and so on.

The answers were pretty good, but I have to admit that I wanted something more myself. After all, when I’m in the voting booth, knowing that Andrew Jackson vetoed the Second Bank of the United States does seem a little irrelevant. So, why is it on the test again?

Really, what can you do with history? For that matter, what can you do with most of the math, philosophy, literature, biology, or Latin you learn in school?

It’s a hard question to answer, but I think that’s because the question is wrong — so, I’m going to dodge the question, but I hope you won’t think I’m cheating. We have to think about this a little differently. Consider athletics for a moment. The right question isn’t what you “do” with a push-up, for example, but instead what a push-up “does” with you. For that matter, what do you “do” with 10 more laps? Obviously, it’s the wrong question: what does running 10 more laps do with you?

If there’s a crisis in the world today, it’s not a crisis of information — we’ve got more of it at our fingertips, literally, than at any point in the past. Instead, as a people, we suffer from a crisis of knowledge about what is good, and a crisis of wisdom about how to live in light of it. We know everything about life and living except how to live well. “Get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight!” the Proverbs declare. What we need most of all is to learn how to see truth more clearly, to have our eyes trained and our vision of the good clarified. That’s the needful thing.

So, what’s history for? The important question isn’t, “What do you do with history?”, but, “What does history do with you?” To really find out, we must dive in. It does very little good to skim the surface, to scrape the trivia off the top. When we dive in, the unfolding drama of every human endeavor becomes apparent. Through the eyes of the ages, we learn what is good and evil, what has built peoples up and what has torn them down, what uses the gifts of God well and what wastes and perverts them. We become able to see more clearly how to live, and that moral vision doesn’t easily fade, even over summer break.

When we study history — or study anything well, for that matter — we become a little more informed, sure. When we seek diligently, however, we gain something more than scraps of trivia or buckets of facts. We gain, by the grace of God, eyes to see and ears to hear, and a truer understanding of how to live well to the glory of God.