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Why do we study history?

An inspired understanding of history—not exclusively as a list of facts and dates to memorize, but as a living tapestry that is relevant, practical, and tangible all around us—is the foundation of an engagement with the messy, interdependent, and otherwise unfathomable network that is humanity.
Why do we study history?

“Think how many things man has created. Look around at all we have—small, great, or beautiful—whatever it is, it has been created by man. But while asking for more and more of these marvelous inventions, we never think of the man that created them… we do not consider the greatness of man, we only consider his defects. Therefore, I say we must refocus our hearts. We must put the creations of man at the center, and not his defects.” - Maria Montessori

When a student at ATI offers an opinion or argument in a Socratic discussion, or small group debate, she is often asked, “What’s the history?”

Whether it is a judgment passed on a current political policy, the importance of a new scientific discovery, or the moral evaluation of a public figure, the focus is on evidence: and usually, that evidence includes understanding the relevant history, the story of how we got here.

When it comes to human life, “why” is inextricably linked with “whence”. There is no understanding of human beings without an understanding from where we came: the grand story of past ideas, lives, injustices, inventions, adventures. An inspired understanding of history—not exclusively as a list of facts and dates to memorize, but as a living tapestry that is relevant, practical, and tangible all around us—is the foundation of an engagement with the messy, interdependent, and otherwise unfathomable network that is humanity. It is the impetus for a desire to participate in that network, to change it, to improve it, to make it better.

History is so fundamental to the ATI curriculum that it is included in every discipline. Literature, math, science—everything is rooted in an understanding of the history of people, cultures, and ideas. Each academic discipline is an accumulation of human thinking and achievement, and to understand them means understanding something about how they were built.

Our belief that history and an understanding of, and appreciation for, humanity are inextricably linked leads us to take a very specific approach to teaching history:

  • We focus on intellectual history: an account of how ideas were created, how they played out, and how they led us to the present. Ideas are the most powerful causes in history; they are the reasons why people act. As the eminent historian Jonathan Israel put it:

    “To question whether ideas and books can in fact cause revolutions and dislodge kings may sound astute momentarily but on closer view seems as shallow as the notion that great events in history may well have small, short-term, accidental, and unnecessary causes. Matching cause and effect is the essence of scientific logic. It is surely also the essence of historical interpretation.”
  • Intellectual history is not just powerful, it is empowering. Ideas are a type of cause that are directly subject to human agency. Evaluating beliefs, differentiating truth from falsehood, figuring out what is essential and inessential—these are the most human of processes. It is something that each and every one of us can and must do, and doing so shapes history and civilization.
  • We present history, not primarily as ancient stories of a time long gone, but as an explanation of the present—of the student’s own world. As Montessori puts it:

    “The history of the present is enormously important, and not only the present but its roots in the past through which much of the present can be understood. History of the past should be taught with this view in mind, as the explanation of the present.”

    Without history, politics, new technologies, current events, and even specific cultural artifacts will be impossible to fully appreciate. Human life is complex and idiosyncratic; the key to essentialized understanding of the world around us is to inquire into its historical roots.
  • The grand swath of history is key for appreciating the human good—for not taking for granted the amazing progress that human beings have made through millennia of accumulated thought and heroic effort. Human events and societies have an intelligible origin in human choices and actions, the greatest of which have involved hard work, dedication, and overcoming obstacles, hardships, and terrible injustices in order to better ourselves.
  • Intellectual history in particular provides us with a foundation for moral reasoning: Individuals make choices based on beliefs and values, and they have reasons for those beliefs and values. Understanding both the reasons and the historical context in which someone chose to act provides us with material for evaluation and assessment of human action.
  • History is a major integrating mechanism in the curriculum. A perspective on history allows things to be ordered along a strong conceptual framework: both a chronological framework, and an intellectual framework that recurs and evolves across a chronology. The question “How did this come to be?” is a simple, powerful, causal perspective that can be iterated across the entire human domain.
  • Last but not least, history is perspective-expanding. To understand how things came to be is to understand how things could have been (and have been, and are) different. It shakes one’s sense of what is given, and inspires one’s sense of what is possible: both personally and societally. History gives specific examples of alternate ways to think and live. The discipline as a whole adds up to an argument that things can be incredibly different and a demonstration as to how to make them so.

In short: a study of history is a study of humanity, and it unlocks an appreciation for, and understanding of, the human world around us.

So, a challenge, the same one we offer to students in our classrooms. The next time you find yourself passing judgment on a newspaper headline, an online post, an off-hand comment, or a podcast, consider asking yourself: What’s the history?

Laura Mazer is the SVP of Programs at Higher Ground Education, where she enjoys thinking about the scope and sequence of the universe.