Riding with my middle-school daughter a while back, I heard one of her favorite pop songs on the radio and called it to her attention; she sighed and said, “Oh, mom, that’s so two minutes ago.” Apparently, the song was popular last year and, therefore, no longer qualifies as one of her current favorites. Then, she added, in exasperation, that the expression itself was outdated. It was popular a year ago, back when she and her friends used to parody the lingo of certain “popular, mean girls” from film or TV. So, a year ago is now “old”? Or two minutes? The whole conversation made me wonder: What kind of a sense of the past do our children grow up with today, and how does it shape our attitudes toward history?
That question emerged in a different way when my son started high school this year. As an academic observing his orientation, I was keenly interested in this introduction to the curriculum. Of all the things I learned, however, the most surprising was that his curriculum requires only one year of history to graduate. Three and a half years of physical education are required. Three to four years of English are essential, as are three years of math. But students at my son’s school can graduate with only one year of history, and US history at that. Even in his first-year English course, where students are required to read only three literary works during the entire academic year, two of the three were written in the last sixty years. In other words, there’s not much distant history in his English curriculum either.
This also squares with trends at the small liberal arts college where I teach. Enrollment in history courses is down. The history department’s faculty allocation has recently been cut. Even in the English department, where enrollment numbers are strong this year, our historically-oriented Renaissance literature line is being suspended due to budgetary adjustments, no doubt to make way for faculty positions in programs like biochemistry, molecular biology, and business. What this means is that my department will soon be without a permanent member who specializes in the period of the greatest flowering of literature in English.
And this dearth of expertise in the historical humanities is evident across the College. When I count the total number of pre-nineteenth century historical humanities positions at my college, considering fields such as art history, philosophy, theater, and religion, I find that only five percent of all full-time, permanent faculty members have expertise in such areas.
Is it any wonder then that young people often have a limited sense of the past, unable to place even watershed events such as the Protestant Reformation or the French Revolution or identify major historical time periods? Not long ago, my son returned home from middle school to boast that, unlike his peers who were hooked on techno-pop, he’d suddenly become interested in “more medieval music”—“You know, Mom, like Simon and Garfunkle, the Beatles, ELO.” I’ll give him a pass for being only twelve at the time, but I’d suggest that this historical illiteracy is more common—and more costly—than we might think.
Why should teaching the past matter? It matters because teaching any pre-modern culture exposes students to ways of being that may be alien to them, a form of ontological diversity just as important as the more familiar kinds we hear so much about today. Many years ago, in a lecture at my college, the classicist Danielle Allen argued that education is fundamentally about knowing the foreign. Like Allen, I share that conviction and, in my own courses, daily ask students to explore the foreign battlefields of Homeric Troy or to inhabit the psychological terrain of Augustine. Both the Iliad and the Confessions offer examples of imaginative mindscapes as foreign to many students as any far-flung land they might visit on a study-abroad trip. And such foreign intellectual encounters, so familiar in early literature and history courses, help students cultivate virtues such as empathy and tolerance.
Tracing the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, distant as it may be, reveals the dangers of overreaching imperial powers, the perils of resources stretched thin, and the consequences of growing economic disparities—none of which are problems confined only to the ancient world. As the historian Timothy Snyder observes in his brief wonder of a book On Tyranny, “Americans today are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism in the twentieth century. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.”
Although Aeschylus’s Oresteia brilliantly dramatizes the triumph of democratic processes of justice over vendetta-style retribution, it also displays the pernicious roots of patriarchy, with the Olympian gods themselves legitimizing male rule over female, as Apollo exculpates Orestes by claiming that the mother isn’t really the parent, only the seed bed, while Athena chimes in, professing to “stand by the man” despite being a woman. Likewise, Shakespeare’s Shylock, a comedy that turns on a act of mercy, also illuminates darker themes such as anti-Semitism and ethnic stereotyping.
History also teaches us that the pursuit of knowledge is often a digressive process. Unlike the natural sciences where knowledge and learning are generally linear, experimentation and research leading to new insights and replacing previous conclusions, humanistic knowledge proceeds haltingly. In the natural sciences, one often draws the conclusion that new knowledge is better than old knowledge. In the humanities, we value the ancient, the antique, the quaint, and the outmoded all in the interest of thickening and enriching our understanding of human life.
While much of that life has involved regrettable episodes, history reminds us of what it means to be questing and creative and to transcend the limits of our human predicament, as Julian of Norwich or Galileo or Mary Rowlandson once did. Studying the past has been shown to remove feelings of isolation that many young people in contemporary America report as their greatest fear. Further, today’s younger generation may learn resilience, courage, and fortitude through an imaginative engagement of the people of the past.
I have been haunted by the lines from a poem I recently read in a book, Cruel Futures by Carmen Giménez Smith,that playfully extols “Disorder in exchange/for embracing the now.” Although Smith’s short poem vindicates that disorder by focusing on personal rather than collective, historical knowledge, those lines have left me wondering about the public implications of such an “exchange.” When, as a society, we “embrace the now,” at the expense of the past, what sort of disorderly deal might we be making? I’m thinking here of, for example, the generally low level of civic participation in the United States. Might this indicate that we have become complacent about our history, forgetting the arduous efforts of a small group of patriots and visionaries, preferring instead the promises of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and charismatic “thought leaders”?
In the academic world where I work, I often hear “That is the way of the past; this is the way of the future,” as if the past were to be regarded as a mere discarded image, disconnected from the priorities of the omnipresent “now.” As educators, we ought to remain wary of such facile dismissals of the past and be vigilant in refuting this kind of chronological snobbery, to borrow a phrase from C.S. Lewis and Owen Barfield. The wisdom and well-being of our young people and our civilization depend on historical knowledge. Otherwise, we may one day find ourselves victims of a “cruel future,” one in which ignorance of past problems condemns us to inevitable repetition of them, and where blindness about historical insights prevents us from seeing wiser paths forward.