The Importance of Teaching History

We are full into Black History Month. For four weeks, kids all across the country are reading about, talking about, writing about our country’s black ancestral history. Stories of contemporary bright lights such as Beyonce, Te-Nehisi Coates, and Barack Obama give way to stories of Ella Fitzgerald, Frederick Douglass, and Romare Bearden — men and women who lived and died before music videos and twitter. Why, then, is teaching black history important? Why teach history at all?

The other day, I went to a new doctor. Before being ushered into the examining room, I was asked to fill out a questionnaire. Name, age, height, weight. There was a checklist of chronic illnesses: cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure. One column asked me to check off any of these illnesses that I have personally experienced. A second column asked for my family history – did my parents, siblings, or grandparents suffer any of these illnesses.

By the time I was introduced to the doctor, she had read my questionnaire and already knew a lot about me. My history gave her valuable information that would be useful in dealing with my current state of being.

A couple of years ago, I saw a funny Saturday Night Live skit — a parody of Steve Jobs unveiling the latest IPod: The IPod Micro, the size of a razor blade with a storage capacity of 50,000 songs. Before Jobs finishes his pitch, he interrupts himself. The IPod Micro has been updated to the IPod Pequena, which holds a million songs. Before Jobs finishes this pitch, he interrupts himself again. The latest Ipod, the Invisa is just that – Invisible! And holds 8 million songs. Silly… but rings the truth – human beings are constantly building on our knowledge of current technology to take it a step further.

In the same way that our medical history is valuable to doctors and technological history is valuable to programmers , our country’s history is valuable to all of us. Yesterday, I saw the documentary “I Am Not Your Negro.” I recommend that all Americans get to the theaters and see it. At one point James Baldwin is asked why history is important. He says, quite simply, “We are our history.”

We are our history but we don’t have to repeat our historical mistakes. Our history provides telling information that helps us think about and respond effectively to the issues of today. Avoid the pitfalls. Build on our successes. Study. Our world depends on it.

Share your favorite stories from history.

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