Why Teach History?

“Why study history?” is the more usual question, and the collection of answers to that is extensive enough. But while it makes sense to think that the reasons for studying history and the reasons for teaching it are congruent from a certain point of view, I very much doubt that the reason I feel a class has gone well is reducible to the sentiment that I successfully conveyed a certain body of either of content or of skills to my clients, the future critical thinkers and job seekers of Canada.

If there is anything like an essence of what makes teaching history worthwhile, I think it must depend to a considerable extent on the person teaching it. How could the meaning of something so involving of one’s personality as teaching not be personal? In my case, it has quite a lot to do with the period that I teach, the “early modern”, and much less with the political units my courses “cover”; more to do with the large themes — ideas about knowledge and about nature, projects for transforming society — than the specific events or topics they embrace. It is not, obviously, a belief in skills or future earnings, but neither is it an attachment to a subfield (political history, economic history, intellectual history), nor to a national tradition (the making of modern Britain, the Founding Fathers, Confederation), nor to a set of methods (oral history, digital history, textual analysis), nor even — though I admit I find this more compelling — to a “problem” (the emergence of capitalism, the formation of a secular worldview). These are, mostly, important aspects of and approaches to history, and they no doubt motivate both students and teachers. But they are not why I teach.

To put it as well as I can, what motivates me is the capacity of engaging the past to take students out of themselves. Getting them to try to make sense of ideas that fly in the face of their basic assumptions, thereby not only to see the conventional nature of those assumptions (certainly valuable) but also to escape them for a moment — to forget what they know and imagine their way into another world, with its own logics — and to carry that capacity with them: that, I think, is not only worthwhile, but unique. To call this “seeing another point of view”, as one or two department websites dutifully do, doesn’t begin to cover it. Points of view, interests and convictions can all vary within a shared set of beliefs about what is good, desirable, real, possible, and what is not; without some such common ground, in fact, it makes no sense to speak of “points of view” at all. But making oneself at home in the early modern world means more than that. Early moderns do not sit across the table from us like so many conservative uncles or foreign exchange students. They live not in another part of our world, but in another world altogether. Attaining that world, if it is possible, requires not only skills and knowledge — though it requires these — but a generous act of imagination and an element even of faith.

This, incidentally, is the real reason why history is not a matter of names and dates. To put it another way, history is not just a matter of names, dates, stories, or skills. These are all of them, I think, ancillary to the larger and harder enterprise of coming to terms with the radically different past. And here I will betray my disciplinary bias, but this in turn is why the pre-modern past will always be “relevant”: it is precisely that past whose connections and resemblances to us are not obvious that most bluntly demands of us the sacrifice of our assumptions about the world and its possibilities. This is not a counsel of antiquarianism: one escapes the present only for a moment, inevitably to return; the question is what one brings back. We do not, in our present moment, need the past to reassure us, to flatter our assumptions and to confirm what we already know. We need to grasp our world’s contingency and precariousness; it confronts us in new ways every day, whether we choose to see it or not. We need to be challenged. We need to be made uncomfortable. When I see students struggling with the past, I am happy.

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