Why Knowing the Past is Important

Only 12% of high school seniors are considered proficient in U.S. History by the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Devin Foley | February 29, 2016 | 6,950

Only 12% of high school seniors are considered proficient in U.S. History by the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
Why Knowing the Past is Important

There is a tendency in some quarters to dismiss the importance of history. In doing so, its role has been diminished in learning. To this truth, there can be no doubt.

The most current data available from the National Assessment of Educational Progress’ (NAEP) The Nation’s Report Card, a gold standard of sorts when it comes to assessing how American students are doing academically, shows abysmally low knowledge of history for most students. Indeed, only 12% of high school seniors were considered proficient in just U.S. History when the test was last given by NAEP:

And so we have arrived at a time when the most basic question must be asked: Does knowing history matter?

In the foreword to Medieval Days and Ways (1937), a book developed for a younger audience, the author Gertrude Hartman provides an earnest, but accessible, argument for why history does matter for Americans, especially European history.

“Through reading history we are able to link our life with that of the people who lived in the world before us. In the building up of civilization every generation of people has contributed its share. In the early days of the world, when men first came upon the earth, all the land was a vast wilderness, and man lived a life but little different from that of the animals that shared the earth with him. But age after age man struggled to improve his way of living, each generation adding something to what had been accomplished before it, and creating something which endured after it and became the foundation upon which the next generation built. It is in this way that almost everything we have in the world today has been gradually developed through past ages.

If we want to understand the world we are living in we must see how, through the ages, it came to be as it now is. We must know how people lived in the past, what they thought, what they believed, what they did day by day, what they learned about nature’s ways, and what improvements in life they brought about.”

To Hartman, even for Americans the Middle Ages were worth studying to understand how we developed as a nation.

“In reading about the Middle Ages you will discover how many contributions the people of that great period made to civilization, and you will see how their descendants, who settled this country, brought here with them many of the customs and ways of living they had known in their old-world homes and passed on to us all that their ancestors in Europe had learned.”

Is her point valid? To understand today do we need to understand the past? Arguably, yes.

If it is true that knowing one’s history matters, what does the general lack of understanding of the past amongst Americans today mean for our future? Can a people who have abandoned their roots continue to build upon the past or do we eventually risk destroying actual progress because we don't understand it? 



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