Importance of History in Education

You may never have heard of the German philosopher Geog Hegel who lived in the 18th & 19th century, but he is purported to have summarised a position which I whole heartedly believe in:

What experience and history teaches us is that people and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.

I’ve always learned the shortened version of this which is: 

“If there’s one thing we learn from history, it’s that no one learns from history!“

I want to state up front that I am NOT a historian (or a philosopher), nor have I studied history formally beyond Class 4 many moons ago, but nevertheless this phrase seems incredibly true today as it was several hundred years ago and I fear our way of prioritising and teaching history in formal education is partly to blame. I am going to argue that we actually need the teaching of history to be mandatory for all children and we need philosophy with history as a double major for tertiary studies. However, in this essay I will concentrate on the reasoning for making historical studies mandatory throughout formal education and leave the reasons for studying philosophy for another time.

History is generally defined in dictionaries as something like “ … a continuous, typically chronological, record of important or public events, person, or of a particular trend or institution”. In short, learning names and dates! Of course this is not how real history is taught at higher educational levels, but by then most people have opted to study accounting, law or ‘IT’. This is a shame because in reality history is about understanding the circumstances and personality types that caused people to behave the way that they did (apologies to the ‘real’ historians reading this article for my layperson’s crude summary). 

So what?

Well the reason, I believe, to study history is to learn from the past. Either to not make the same kind of mistakes, or to re-learn or remember a principle that worked well previously. The one cadre of a society that seems to take this utility of history very seriously, are military academies who try to learn from the martial strategies of the past. I believe though that we need to teach our children this aspect of the study of history as soon as they are mentally able to learn this principle (‘history enables us to learn from the past’). 

Recently some of the senior children at our school and I had a great discussion about what is going on in Mexico with the terrible civil violence that is occurring there, mainly because of the drug trade. We arrived at this discussion from trying to understand a key principle in economics (‘supply & demand’). This led onto a discussion that the ‘war on drugs’ with a conclusion that this is bound to fail as long as the ‘demand’ for recreational drugs is not tackled. The logic is that when a product becomes in short supply because it has been outlawed, then the demand (for recreational drugs) goes up to the point where it will ‘pay’ someone to do illegal activity (in other words supply illegal drugs despite the potential consequences). The result is a feedback loop in which the criminal activity starts to ‘pay’ despite the risks, simply because the potential to earn a lot of money becomes ever larger. Since the activity is illegal this unfortunately opens the door to other illegal activities, like killing other competitors – one cannot exactly go to the police to complain that your supplier of drugs has been murdered because the supply is in fact itself illegal!

Is a ‘war on drugs’ is bound to fail?

The beauty of studying history allows us to see whether any previous ‘war on drugs’ was successful. Take the prohibition laws in the US in the 1920s. Alcohol was illegal for 13 years. Although organised crime in the US did exist, most historians agree that it received a major boost through the prohibition era. Most famous perhaps was the Chicago crime boss Al Capone and his Mafia organisation who ran an operation that at the time, was not that different from the atrocities occurring in Mexico today. In other words despite the risks, people’s demand for alcohol meant that they were prepared to pay high prices to ‘criminals’ who were prepared to supply them with this (illegal) recreational drug. Since the alcohol was illegal, it came at a high price and the criminals who supplied it became rich. These riches allowed the organised crime syndicates to enforce their business with brutality and included bribing or blackmailing the official authorities who were supposed to stop them. Most historical analyses of the Prohibition era in the USA during the 1920s appear to echo the sentiment that it was a failed policy and was abandoned in the early 1930s. Inappropriate consumption of alcohol was no longer a criminal offence but alcohol abusers were considered as a social problem requiring social solutions such as the organisation Alcoholics Anonymous.

What could we learn from this?

I don’t want to pretend that the answers to this problem were/are easy, but once the children heard about the historical example of organised crime during the time of the Prohibition in the USA, they were able to quickly make comparison with the modern day ‘War on Drugs’ in the Middle and South Americas, including an assessment on the likelihood of eventual success (or not). Furthermore it did not take them long to offer alternative solutions – such as creating government incentives to educating users in the US to take less drugs. Whether such a policy is realistic or not, they were able to recognise that if you decrease the demand for a recreational drug, then the supply chain will decrease too with a corresponding reduction in the crime that is associated with it.

In other words, when children study history from the point of view of understanding why people behave the way they do (instead of simply learning names and dates), they actually have the opportunity to learn from the past. In the case of criminalising recreational drugs, a historical overview suggests that any ‘war on drugs’ has a limited chance of success whilst incentives to supply an ‘illegal’ drug can continue to spiral upwards – people will be simply willing to pay more.

The value of history, and in particular history that focusses on understanding behaviour that occurred in the past, cannot be overstated as an educational must and foundation for all children undergoing formal education. Perhaps more so today than previously, because the consequences of tackling today’s global issues – and getting it wrong – have a greater effect on more people than at any time in the past: population growth; nuclear weapons; pollution; species extinction; greenhouse gasses, to name a few. 

This leads me to the conclusion that if I was ever in a position to make sweeping reforms in how tertiary education should be structured, I would insist that no-one could do their degree of choice unless they first did a double major in history & philosophy; so if you wanted to study English literature, or become a teacher, or study mathematics, or biology; sociology; psychology; sports science; banking; international finance; jurisprudence; economics; bio-chemistry or nano-technology (etc etc etc) – sure go right ahead but not before you’ve successfully obtained a double major in history & philosophy. 

I started this essay with a quote from the German 18th century philosopher Geog Hegel about people not learning from the past. The same sentiment was more recently expressed by the Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana who said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. 

I believe teaching our children historical studies throughout our school’s curriculum, is the right place where we can actively avoid the condemnation of future generations repeating the same mistakes of the past and present.

Education is a progressive discovery of our own ignorance.  -Will Durant