Senior Sem Journal: History for a Civil Society

In ch. 6 of his Why Study History?, John Fea proposes that “one way of invigorating our life together as citizens of the United States is through the study of history.” History/Social Studies Education double-major Kelly Van Wyk (’15) found that much of his argument resonated with her experience as a teacher-in-training, but she did not think history could be a “panacea” for American society. (Earlier in this series, Kelly responded to ch. 2, “The Past Is a Foreign Country.”)

Fea, Why Study History?…Examining American society in particular, John Fea asserts that “one small way of cultivating the virtues necessary for a thriving democracy is through the study of history” (117). He supports his claim by suggesting that the study of history teaches its students to apply the humility, empathy, and selflessness of encountering the past to the difficult conversations required in a democratic present. I agree with the general thrust of Fea’s thesis, but I abstain from accepting the wholesale implications that it might suggest if taken too far. I am optimistic that the study of history benefits its students, but I hesitate to fasten the fate of society onto history alone.

My time as a prospective teacher has resulted in many encounters with the relationship between history and civil society. According to my current understanding, there remain no social studies (let alone history) assessments on the United States’ top standardized tests. [Here’s a policy statement on this and related issues by the National Council for the Social Studies.] Many schools push for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education to be emphasized while social studies content is quietly ignored. When a society is focused on hard sciences that produce immediate, tangible results, its goal is shortsighted and weighted with consequences that harm the “with-it-ness” of America’s future citizens. A humorous example of historical ignorance that my professors have mentioned in class is seen in talk show host Jay Leno’s “Jaywalking” segment, where random strangers fail to answer the most basic questions about American history. Watching this on television, I feel more convinced than ever that Americans, lodged in their original position at the center of the universe, have not learned the humility that comes from encountering the foreign past (118).

The study of history, as Fea describes it, places individuals within the foreign country of the past. As discussed in a previous chapter, the past requires of its students that they check their own understandings at the door and keep an open mind as they interact with monumentally different experiences. History teaches individuals how to engage in open dialogue despite opposing worldviews, and in that sense I agree with Fea’s assertion that studying history produces better citizens within a democracy. The longer someone spends trying to understand what is different or unfamiliar to them, the higher chance they will walk away from that encounter with wisdom.

Though history does teach many of the virtues that American society needs to cultivate in order to survive, I feel inclined to caution readers before they leave the house and pledge unlimited financial support to a “We Need History Back In Our Schools” initiative. History education might recover some of the values that American society has left by the wayside, but it is not the panacea to remedy all social issues. The problem rooted at the bottom of this society is the same problem rooted at the bottom of every civilization across the span of time: sin. The sinful nature of humankind is a curse that leaves us dead to the evil we provoke and the harm we cause to one another. Only Jesus Christ has the power to redeem a world so fallen. As Christians, we must be hopeful that we can reflect Christ in this world and alleviate a part of the suffering; however, we will never be able to create suffering’s final cure.

– Kelly Van Wyk

<<Read the previous entry in this series

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