In homage to the Routledge “Why it’s OK” Series
“Why its OK that you don’t remember anything you were supposed to have learned in history class.”
(1) There’s a good chance that much of what you were supposed to have learned was wrong. The best-known work on this issue is of course James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me. This book was popular in part because it confirmed what many of us already knew: that history teachers repeat apocryphal stories all the time, that they invent knowledge, and that they simply present views on the past that don’t jive with modern historical scholarship.
(2) What they were supposed to teach you in history class was probably out-of-date. It takes decades for new research to work its way into textbooks. Assuming you have a 5-year old textbook, you would be lucky to be reading consensus or standard views of history newer than 15 years old. Historical revisionism is a bad word, but in reality, all history is constantly being revised, re-written, and re-interpreted. Our understanding of certain parts of the past is getting better (in some cases), but there is no reason to think that consensus views of history today won’t change again in the near future.
(3) In your history class, you probably learned a combination of a whole of bunch bogus nationalism and whatever brand of ideology your teacher held. If you went to school in the South, you might have learned that the Civil War was fought about “states rights” and not “slavery.” If your teacher was a liberal, you may have read from Howard Zinn, or something similar. If you went to school in a red state, you may have learned any number of conservative myths. Regardless, you probably only learned one half-thought out perspective on most major events and processes.
(4) Although your history teachers repeated stock phrases like “learn from history or you will be bound to repeat it”, knowledge of history is not a particularly good guide to future action after all. In a very general sense, we can apply historical knowledge, particularly when it is knowledge from our own experiences. So if you trip on a crack on the sidewalk, you will probably watch your step next time you return to that spot. But most if not all of the facts you learned in history class are not very applicable to your own choices in life. Next time you have a big decision in your life, ask “What would Napoleon/ Caeser/ Washington Do?” or “How is my knowledge of the Eisenhower Administration” going to help me get this next job? (assuming, that is, you learned anything about the Eisenhower Administration)
(5) Knowledge of history is not some cure-all for political ignorance. If all people who knew a lot about history were republicans, or democrats, or monarchists, or communists, we might then be able to say that history points us towards some political truths. Conservatives are particularly prone to the fallacy that knowledge of the past will save our society, nation, government, etc. But for the number of people who gain nationalist views from history class, another set of people become radicals or anti-nationalists. More knowledge of history doesn’t necessary lead to more respect for the past or to a conservative outlook; rather, a knowledge of history is often what spurs people to demand change. Historical knowledge is, in itself, neither conservative nor radical.
Knowing history can make you a more interesting person, it might give you a sense of identity or purpose, it might be entertaining, but you shouldn’t feel bad if you don’t remember much about what you were supposed to have learned in history class.