Our mission is to advocate for the teaching of good history and civics in America’s schools, K-16. What is “good history”? Perhaps, it can be best contrasted to what has come to be known as “heritage.” Even at its best, history is not a science in the conventional sense because historians cannot subject the historical record to experimental trials. However, history does have its own discipline-based methods of inquiry, interpretation, and peer review procedures that help establish new work as acceptable and persuasive (or not). Heritage is not scrutinized in this way at all. It is subject to one test only: does it serve or satisfy the group that claims to own it? Heritage has its place. Certainly, every nation and every group fashions a heritage, which often is an amalgam of the true, the “might be true,” and “wish it were true.” Heritage, therefore, most often falls within the boundaries of civic religion or civic patriotism rather than within civics education. Heritage has its uses, but it certainly is neither history nor civics.
Our mission, therefore, is to promote history’s discipline-based methods of inquiry and interpretation. Why? Most importantly, the study of history has a direct relation to the present. The reason that people read and study history is to find their place in their world. History provides the context for our daily lives and the life of our nation and our world. The clothes we put on in the morning, the food that we eat for breakfast, the candidates for whom we vote, the jobs at which we work, and the opinions that we express all can be best understand by looking to the past to understand their historical and very contingent evolution. Furthermore, the philosophers of civic life - Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Franklin, Jefferson, Lincoln, and on to the present--all understood that humans could know themselves and their world by viewing the present through history’s spectacles. The study of history, they believed, is the key to the well-educated citizen. Those who know their history are less apt to be fooled by demagogues and political charlatans and better able to assess the long-term consequences of national and international policies. The historically literate citizen also is better able to see the profound and symbiotic relationships that exist among individuals within a community and within the community of nations. In this sense, history is an irreplaceable component of civics education.
What should students and adults know about history? They do need to have a knowledge of historical facts and a finely ingrained sense of historical chronology that are more deeply grounded than the traditional and sacred list of dates and events that was once the staple of historical studies in K-12 schools. After all, it is necessary to know that the late expansion of the Mongol Empire is not a contemporary event and that it occurred roughly at the same time as the Christian Crusades … but also that they are important events because they profoundly shaped the life and evolution of not only Europe but also Asia and the Middle East. The core of the history teacher’s mission, however, should be centered upon developing within students an active and discerning imagination and a clear knowledge of how to use the sources about the past to explain that past and understand how it created the present.
If history is taught well, students will come to see the past not as stagnant and given but as a dynamic response to the questions asked of it not only by professional historians but also by themselves. The history teacher also must teach students to craft coherent, convincing, and well-grounded verbal and written arguments. If students are passionately excited about their findings and arguments, they will be eager to share them with others. If they are excited by history as an active, inquiring discipline, then they are ready to grapple with the ambiguities and paradoxes that mark human society. And, don’t those skills required to navigate society’s ambiguities, paradoxes, and difficulties go to the heart of civics education? History and civics education are companions and partners in this work.
Until next time,
Jim Bruggeman Executive Director, The Montana Council for History and Civics Education Bozeman, MT