Why History?

Why Study History?
Why Study History? American Historical Society
Why Study History? Hanover
Why Study History Through Primary Sources?

"To learn about history is to kick the habit of violence and show that war is futile and addiction is a consequence of engagement in it" (Howard Zinn, Interview, http://www.alternet.org/story/43138/, 10/20/06).

How much did yesterday effect what you did today? How much does your childhood influence your attitudes and your situation in life? Probably your past life influences your current situation and thinking enough for you to say, if you really think about it, that history is important to you.

When you get to know someone, what do you want to know about them? Don't you trade stories and histories, experiences and relationships? You would have to say, then, that other people's histories are important to you.

"..history is important. More than any other topic, it is about us. Whether one deems our present society wondrous or awful or both, history reveals how we arrived at this point. Understanding our past is central to our ability to understand ourselves and the world around us" (Loewen, 12-13).

"Those who study the past are "much better off" than those who do not because they seek "an expanded horizon"... [history] lets us experience vicariously what we can't experience directly: a wider view.

"The backward gaze is also maturing; it offers... recognition of how much of it we will never know. "Historical consciousness.. leaves you, as does maturity itself, with a simultaneous sense of your own significance and insignificance"" (Char Miller. "Rear Window." Texas Observer, 2/27/04, 26-27).

"If we knew our history, Zinn said, "we would understand the fundamental fact that the interests of the government and the interests of the people are not the same."

"Soldiers, he said, are mistaken when they say they are going off to Iraq to fight for our country.

"They are going off to Iraq to fight for Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Halliburton," Zinn said." (Matthew Rothschild. "Laura Doesn't Count." The Progressive, Nov. 2006: 4).

Why, then, do most of us find history so boring? Because the textbooks make it boring. In Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, James Loewen tells us that most history textbooks leave out ALL the interesting stuff that makes it pertinent to us. Even worse, textbooks create social myths by not telling us the whole story.

Howard Zinn, in A People's History of the United States, says that most history books assume that all the important history is made by the political and economic leaders of a country. We don't learn anything about what the rest of the people in the country were doing, thinking, or presenting as alternatives. Again, we are not given the whole story.

If we don't know the whole story, how can we practice critical thinking about current events and about our own lives? Let's take one example: the social myth which we celebrate every year as Thanksgiving. The Thanksgiving myth is that the Pilgrims settled the United States in 1620. And in so doing they had to fight off indians repeatedly. The following are some notes from Loewen's book:

"British and French fisherman, landing in Massachusetts for fresh water and supplies in 1617, brought the plague to the American indians. "Within three years the plague wiped out between 90 percent and 96 percent of the inhabitants of coastal New England... Unable to cope with so many corpses, the survivors abandoned their villages" (81).

What the Pilgrims found were settled farms, with the crops already planted and growing, deserted by Indians fleeing the plague. The Pilgrims "found it easy to infer that God was on their side. John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, called the plague "Miraculous"" (81).

"These epidemcs probably constituted the most important geopolitical event of the early seventeenth century. Their net result was that the British, for their first fifty years in New England, would face no real Indian challenge" (81).

The plagues "continued west, racing in advance of the line of culture contact... Disease played the same crucial role in Mexico and Peru as it did in Massachusetts... When the Spanish marched into Tenochtitlan [now Mexico City], there were so many bodies [dead from the plague] that they had to walk on them" (82-3).

"..the population of the Americas [was] one hundred million in 1492.. Europe had only about seventy million people when Columbus set forth. The Europeans' advantages in military and social technology might have enabled them to dominate the Americas.. but not to "settle" the hemisphere. For that, the plague was required" (83).

".. the land was, in reality, not a virgin wilderness, but recently widowed" (84).

We also tend, in favor of the Pilgrims, to ignore Jamestown which was settled first. "Historians could hardly tout Virginia... The Virginians' relations with the Indians were particularly unsavory...the early Virginians engaged in bickering, sloth, even cannibalism. They spent their early days digging random holes in the ground, haplessly looking for gold instead of planting crops. Soon they were starving and digging up putrid Indian corpses to eat or renting themselves out to Indian families as servants" (89-90).

"..the Pilgrims hardly "started from scratch" in a "wilderness." Throughout southern New England, Native Americans had repeatedly burned the underbrush, creating a parklike environment... They chose Plymouth because of its beautiful cleared fields, recently planted in corn, and its useful harbor and "brook of fresh water." It was a lovely site for a town. Indeed, until the plaque, it had been a town.." (90). One of the first things the Pilgrims did was go through the town, looting the possessions of the Indians. "..the Pilgrims continued to rob graves for years" (91).

"More than any other celebration.. Thanksgiving celebrates our ethnocentrism... God on our side, civilization wrested from wilderness, order from disorder, through hard work and good Pilgrim character traits" (93).

The first question we might want to ask is, What are our assumptions and biases as a result of the Thanksgiving story? Do we see American Natives as unfortunate savages who had to be fought so that we could obtain the land? Do we see ourselves as the prophets of civilization? Is it okay to kill others if they are not as "civilized" as we are?

Another question we might want to ask is, What ELSE do we not know about our own history? A good place to start is Loewen's book... However, don't forget the Alternate News sources!

A good example of more recent history and the impact it has had is the article, "Society: We Made It, We Can Change It," by Michael J. Gilbert, faculty at UTSA. He writes, in part:

"An African proverb tells us that it takes an entire village to raise a child -- any child, every child. This proverb points out that the society we have is the one we created. Our society is the product of decisions and actions in our past as well as those we take today. The social conditions that foster intolerance, rage, violence and street crime are also products of our history. If the bad news is that we own our history: the good news is that, if we made it we can also change it."

For the entire article, see http://www.salsa.net/peace/UTSA/ti-4.html


Loewen, James W. Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1995.

Zinn, Howard. A People's History of the United States. NY: Harper & Row, 1980.

"The truth is that dealing with the contemporary prepares the mind poorly for a thoughtful life, shortening judgment and distorting perspective. The contemporary, moreover, is extremely difficult to assess land teach, though dealing with it makes the teacher popular. His references to the living satisfy in students the illusion of being at last in theknow... once again, the best way lies through comfort, and comfort is happy confusion, mental promiscuity" (Jacques Barzun. The House of Intellect. NY: Harper & Bros., 1959. p.122).

"If we don't know history, then we are ready meat for carnivorous politicians and the intellectuals and journalists who supply the carving knives. I am not speaking of the history we learned in school, a history subservient to our political leaders, from the much-admired Founding Fathers to the Presidents of recent years. I mean a history which i honest about the past. If we don't know that history, then any President can stand up to the battery of microphones, declare that we must go to war, and we will have no basis for challenging him. He will say that the nation is in danger, that democracy and liberty are at stake, and that we must therefore send ships and planes to destroy our new enemy, and we will have no reason to disbelieve him...

"But if we know some history, if we know how many times Presidents have made similar declarations to the country, and how they turned out to be lies, we will not be fooled. Although some of us may pride ourselves that we were never fooled, we still might accept as our civic duty the responsibility to buttress our fellow citizens against the mendacity of our high officials.

"We would remind whoever we can that President Polk Lied to the nation about the reason for going to war with Mexico in 1846. It wasn't that Mexico "shed American blood upon the American soil," but that Polk, and the slave-owning aristocracy, coveted half of Mexico.

"We would point out that President McKinley lied in 1898 about the reason for invading Cuba, saying we wanted to liberate the Cubans from Spanish control, but the truth is that we really wanted Spain out of Cuba so that the island could be open to United Fruit and other American corporations. He also lied about the reasons for our war in the Philippines, claiming we only wanted to "civilize" the Filipinos, while the real reason was to own a valuable piece of real estate in the far Pacific, even if we had to kill hundreds of thousands of Filipinos to accomplish that.

"President Woodrow Wilson--so often characterized in our history books as an "idealist"--lied about the reasons for entering the First World War, saying it was a war to "make the world safe for democracy," when it was really a war to make the world safe for the Western imperial powers.

"Harry Truman lied when he said the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima because it was "a military target."

"Everyone lied about Vietnam--Kennedy about the extent of our involvement, Johnson about the Gulf of Tonkin, Nixon about the secret bombing of Cambodia, all of them claiming it was to keep South Vietnam free of communism, but really wanting to keep South Vietnam as an American outpost at the edge of the Asian continent.

"Reagan lied about the invasion of Grenada, claiming falsely that it was a threat to the United States.

"The elder Bush lied about the invasion of Panama, leading to the death of thousands of ordinary citizens in that country.

"And he lied again about the reason for attacking Iraq in 1991--hardly to defend the integrity of Kuwait (can one imagine Bush heartstricken over Iraq's taking of Kuwait?), rather to assert US power in the oil-rich Middle East.

"Given the overwhelming record of lies told to justify wars, how could anyone listening to the younger Bush believe him as he laid out the reasons for invading Iraq? Would we not instinctively rebel against the sacrifice of lives for oil?...

"A careful reading of history might give us another safeguard against being deceived. It would make clear that there has always been, and is today, a profound conflict of interest between the government and the people of the United States. This thought startles most people, because it goes against everything we have been taught.

"We have been led to believe that, from the beginning, as our Founding Fathers put it in the Preamble to the Constitution, it was "we the people" who established the new government after the Revolution. When the eminent historian Charles Beard suggested, a hundred years ago, that the Constitution represented not the working people, not the slaves, but the slave-holders, he became the object of an indignant editorial in The New York Times...

"Our present leaders are not so candid. They bombard us with phrases like "national interest," "national security," and "national defense" as if all of these concepts applied equally to all of us, colored or white, rich or poor, as if General Motors and Halliburton have the same interests as the rest of us, as if George Bush has the same interest as the young man or woman he sends to war.

"Surely, in the history of lies told to the population, this is the biggest lie. In the history of secrets, withheld from the American people, this is thebiggest secret: that there are classes with different interests in this country. To ignore that--not to know that the history of our country is a history of slaveowner against slave, landlord against tenant, corporation against worker, rich against poor--is to render us helpless before all the lesser lies told to us by people in power...

"We must face our long history of ethnic cleansing, in which millions of Indians were driven off their land by means of massacres and forced evacuations. And our long history, still not behind us, of slavery, segregation, and racism. We must face our record of imperial conquest, in the Caribbean and in the Pacific, our shameful wars against small countries a tenth of our size: Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, Afghanistan, Iraq. And the lingering memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is not a history of which we can be proud.

"Our leaders have taken it for granted, and planted that belief in the minds of many people, that we are entitled, because of our moral superiority, to dominate the world...

"A more honest estimate of ourselves as a nation would prepare us all for the next barrage of lies that will accompany the next proposal to inflict our power on some other part of the world. It might also inspire us to creat a different history for ourselves, by taking our country away from the liars and killers who govern it, and by rejecting nationalist arrogance, so that we can join the rest of the human race in the common cause of peace and justice" (Howard Zinn. "America's Blinders." The Progressive, April 2006: 22-24).

Colby Glass, MLIS