Why Understanding History Matters

This article originally appeared in Education Week on February 12, and is reprinted with permission from the author and former AACTE Board Chair Renée A. Middleton.

To the Editor:

The Jan. 8 article, “Sure, We Teach History. But Do We Know Why It’s Important?” (Big Ideas special report), noted that 78% of educators surveyed believe the primary purpose of teaching history is “to prepare students to be active and informed citizens.” The article also said that understanding the present in historical context can help us “decide on the best course of action ahead.”

I would like to thank the author of this article, which focused on Japanese-Americans forced into prison camps after Pearl Harbor and the decades-later response from President Ronald Reagan and other Americans. History provides a foundation for action and affects how people perceive—and respond—to present-day horrors. All educators should take note.

In 2019, I traveled to Poland for a study tour of the Jewish Holocaust, which showed how far hate can go if left unchecked. My experience of the study tour reinforced the meaning of the Jewish rallying cry “never again.”

Hate crimes are increasing. The Anti-Defamation League found that 2018 saw a 99% increase in reported anti-Semitic acts in the United States since 2015, and the third-highest number since the 1970s.

These troubling numbers come against the backdrop of a humanitarian crisis at the southern border, where refugees are being separated from families and detained against their will.

The Holocaust provides a unique example for us to learn from our past. When Jews said, “never again,” they meant for all humans, including the Japanese-Americans forced into prison camps.

Decades later, similar human-rights violations are happening on our own soil. What will it take for people to act? A thorough understanding of history, for starters.

When teaching history, educators must help students connect the past and present. History teaches, but only if it is taught. Learn. Reflect. Care. Act. This is what it means to live in a democracy where history matters.

Renée A. Middleton
The Gladys W. and David H. Patton College of Education
Ohio University
Athens, Ohio 

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Renée A. Middleton

Ohio University