So I’ve already devoted more than enough time to common misconceptions about the value of history—it’s time to think together about why we should find value in studying the past. My list is not exhaustive, and it’s far from the last word on the matter, but here is how I typically answer that question at the beginning of the courses I teach.
In our short-sighted pragmatism, we often insist that academic pursuits immediately translate into a higher potential income after graduation, which is another way of saying that we all too commonly equate education and vocational training. Vocational training is a good thing—we all need to know something about how to make a living—and I do honestly believe that a rigorous study of history has benefits that can help to put bread on the table. I want all of my students to improve their abilities to read critically, reason logically, and communicate persuasively, and I think that these are skills that are widely transferable to any number of vocations. And yet these are incidental benefits—as wonderful as they are—and emphatically not the main benefit we seek. We study history primarily not to earn a better living but to live a better life.
History serves this purpose in several ways. For the moment let me focus on two, both of which I can best illustrate with metaphors. First of all, history is a form of memory. (I like Christian historian John Lukacs’ definition of history as the “remembered past.”) If we take the analogy seriously, it can teach us a lot about history’s value. I asked my students recently to list the attributes of memory as an exercise for thinking about the pitfalls and opportunities of studying the past. Astutely, they noted that memory can be faulty, that it is sometimes selective and self-serving, and that it may change over time—all of which is also true of history. But they also identified some of memory’s priceless benefits. “Memory is crucial to our sense of personal identity,” one student noted. “Without it we would be unable to function,” observed another. The same could be said for history. History is crucial to our sense of collective identity. Just as memory helps in answering the question “who am I?” history helps in answering the question “who are we?” And because history gives us a memory before birth, it can connect us with the insight and experience of those who have gone before us. In a figurative sense it actually lengthens our life’s span, broadening our perspective and enabling us, not to predict the future, but to meet it more wisely.
If history is a form of memory—reminding us of who we have been—it can also be a kind of mirror—revealing to us who we are now. In Romans 12:2, the apostle Paul warns us against being conformed to the values of the world. Unfortunately, many of the cultural values that influence us deeply become invisible to us. We see them as “natural,” and what we see as natural we eventually cease to see at all. One of the great benefits of studying history is its potential to remind us that the way things are now is not the way they have always been. It can be a lot like traveling to a foreign country, except that we are traveling across time instead of space. As a Christian who focuses on the study of American History, I am struck that we do not have to go back very far in time to encounter individuals who professed the same faith that we do, who lived in the same part of the world that we do, and who nevertheless viewed the world very differently than we do. When we take such encounters seriously, we become self-conscious of our values in a way that we have not been; they literally become more visible than before. Thus the study of history helps us to see both ourselves and our world with new clarity, and it is only when we are really see the values that shape us that we can effectively resist the world’s efforts to squeeze us into its mold.
In sum, history’s greatest value is not utilitarian but moral. At its richest, it furthers our pursuit for a heart of wisdom, the quest at the very center of what it means to love God with our minds.