Sunday, August 25, 2013

Why History is Important

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.

--Karl Marx, Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852)

Karl Marx, if you've heard of him at all, is most famous as a leading intellect of the economic/political system identified as communism; since communism "failed" before many of you were born. What possible relevance does he have to American history? Admittedly, not very much--but this quote, from a work he wrote bemoaning the failure of the second French Revolution, is one of the best explanations of the effects of history on everyday life. The decisions made today will effect decisions that will be made 10, 20--even 100 or 500 years from now; just as decisions made in history previously continue to effect our lives today.

This course is an introduction to both the time period in United States History from the Civil War to the present day, and the study and practice of history itself. The purpose of this class is less to master a body of facts, events, and dates (although that remains important) than it is develop the critical tools with which to analyze the past and the present.

History is not a science, nor is it written in stone. It is a subject that will forever be open to reinterpretation. Their culture, their personal experiences, and their social context necessarily shape an individual’s understanding of history. This is not to say that all interpretations of history are equally valid – history must be written upon the foundation of historical evidence and be put together logically. History is newly interpreted each generation.

Over the course of this semester I will venture share my own interpretations of history. You may find them convincing and insightful or you may reject them in favor of historical viewpoints of your own. Whether you agree with me or not is unimportant. All I hope is that at the end of the semester you have gained a deeper understanding of our national history and a richer vocabulary of ideas with which to think about it.

Beyond the many insights that history itself has to offer and the graduation requirements it fulfills, the study of history cultivates many skills that will be useful to you throughout your professional and personal life. It develops reading and writing skills, analytical and critical thinking, relational and interpretive abilities, judgment, and has the potential to increase your awareness and understanding of your own time and place and your role in it. But none of these achievements will come automatically - your educational reward in this class will equal your effort.