Why History is Important

NHS 3 crop thumbnail

Dr. Michael Hogan spoke to the National Honor Society December 9, 2019, at the American School Foundation of Guadalajara (ASFG) about the importance of studying history. Afterwards, he chatted with social studies faculty members Dr. Alondra Velasco, Director Mexican Studies (l), and Barbara Linden, Advanced Placement US History instructor. Here’s the full text of his speech.

During the last visit of the Pope to Mexico, the CNN reporter in Mexico City said, “And now the Pope is leaving this Central American capital to return to Rome.”

Central America. Mexico? Really? And this was a major TV news program.

A few weeks ago, when Evo Morales left Bolivia, the Guardian newspaper in the UK reported “…and so ends the career of the first indigenous president in Latin America.”

Really? The first? What about Benito Juárez?

Earlier this year, when Nicaraguans, El Salvadorans, and Hondurans were streaming in a caravan to the US, Bill O’Reilly on Fox news announced the “Mexican invasion of the United States.”

This would be considered ludicrous if the people responded to the announcement with scorn. But instead, months later, an 18-year-old from Dallas killed 22 people at an El Paso Wal-Mart in an attempt to stop what he called the Mexican invasion of his country.

Thus, he demonstrated not only an ignorance of history because the US invaded Mexico and seized much of its territory in 1848, but also an ignorance of demographics. Because once again, the migrant caravan he referred to was composed of Central Americans fleeing both gang violence and unsustainable climate change exacerbated by multinational corporations, and exploitation of natural resources such as water and arable land.

Much is spoken these days about the wealth gap, the 1 percent versus the rest of the folks. We also talk about the education gap, where fewer and fewer students have access to quality education.

Tonight, I would like to talk about the history gap, where fewer and fewer people understand or see the importance of history and how this lack of knowledge endangers us all.

The news has been full in recent years of the decline of history in universities throughout the Americas. Last year Dr. Benjamin Schmidt of Northeastern University published an article showing that for the past decade history has been declining as a major more rapidly than any other discipline over the past 10 years.

In Wisconsin, the state university closed the history department. Other universities reduced the number of history professors they employed. One student noted, “I love history, but my parents said, ´What kind of job are you going to get with that as a major?’”

But there is one place where the steep decline in history major has had no effect. There is one group of universities when the number of people studying history has in fact increased three-fold. Care to guess where? In the most prestigious colleges and universities. At Yale, Dartmouth, Harvard and Columbia. When I told an ASFG faculty member this, she replied, “Well of course. They don’t have to worry about getting a job.”

But the answer is more interesting than that. According to Dr. Alan Mikhail, the head of the history department at Yale, “Our students know that they will be the leaders in the future whether in politics, finance, industry or human development. The study of history is more than just dates and events. It includes the study of geography, of statistics, of demographics, of climate change, of law, and foreign relations. For that reason, some of our brightest STEM students take history courses, as do those in international business and marketing.”

History makes you feel that you are part of a continuum, you are part of generations that were here before you, you learn from their mistakes and failures, as well as their accomplishments and victories. You learn that you are not alone.

Fernando Rojas, a Mexican and the head of Yale’s Institute of Transnational Migration, has a degree in history. So does Prince Charles in the UK. So does Howard Stringer, former CEO of Sony Corporation. So does Chris Hughes, the co-founder of Facebook. It has also been the major of choice for leaders in government.

Among US presidents with history degrees were Woodrow Wilson, John F. Kennedy, and Dwight Eisenhower. Also, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, former prime minister of England Winston Churchill, three Supreme Court justices, and six Nobel Prize winners.

Dr. Mikhail, the history chairperson at Yale, went on to say, “The reason students at Yale can afford to study history is that they know they are smart enough, personable enough, and talented enough to get a good position. But they also know that the only way to get to the top of their profession and make positive changes is through something deeper than just a skill set—even a complex one like international finance, engineering, or medicine.”

They know the only way to understand the present is to embrace the messiness of politics, culture and economics. They know there are never easy answers to pressing questions about the world and public life, and they look to deepen their understanding. The study of history gives them that.

In 1942, Hitler gathered the best minds of his generation: the geneticists, the architects, the chemists, the surgeons, the psychologists, the statisticians. His goal was to create a brain trust to prepare the final solution—the destruction of the Jews. The geneticists did experiments with twins, the chemists created poison gas, the architects created concentration camps, the psychologists studied how much pain or extremes of temperature a person could tolerate before dying, the statisticians kept track of how many millions they killed.

Nowhere was there a historian. Hitler had eliminated that as a program of study in the schools back in the 1930s and was contemptuous of it, as are most autocratic leaders who want to be exceptions to the constitutional limits, and the common decencies which are necessary to produce a livable society.

John F. Kennedy once wrote: “Too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.” For example, we are constantly told by posts on the Internet and on the news that the jobs of the future will all be in the STEM field. Science, technology, engineer and mathematics. And of all of these, engineering will be the most secure and lucrative.

Most of these posts and articles are written by people on the payroll of multinational corporations whose goal is to obtain cheap labor from professionals in the future. Give it some thought.

In 2016 China graduated 5.6 million students in STEM disciplines; 2.5 million were engineers. In India, they graduated 1.8 million STEM students and 800,000 were engineers. Sixty percent of them are unemployed today. Many are waiting to get visas to go to the US, where they will flood the market and lower the wages for engineers well into 2025, 2030, and beyond.

Now, some of the people who are telling us we need more engineers and more STEM students, and that a liberal arts degree is worthless, are good people. They have good intentions. But they are repeating when they read (an Opinion) without doing the research. And sadly, some are as oblivious to the real facts as those commentators who think Mexico is in Central America, or Benito Juárez never existed.

So, this is my challenge to you NHS members. My talented, bright, and motivated students: Remember history as you move through your educational options whether it is here at ASFG or later at a university.

Do not lose sight of your goal to make the most of your time on the planet, not just to develop a skill set, or earn money, or even follow your passion whatever that may be. But to truly add what you can to the good of the world and not, from lack of research, to inadvertently contribute to its decline.

Be ready to debunk the myths of the media when they tell you that the study of history is useless or when they pit one generation against the other or try to divide us by sexual identity.

For every Greta Thornburg at 16 there is a Jane Fonda at 81, and for every woman like Jane Fonda there is a man like Jimmy Carter. Those who do not see a multigenerational world are like birds in a cage, locked into a dreary present with no understanding of the past and no clear vision of the future.

People of all generations, colors, creeds, and sexual identity are truly working together to make this a better world. But it is in the interests of corporate oligarchs to keep us divided, as well as those hundreds, no thousands, of businesses and individuals who profit from conflicts: security firms, talk show hosts, arms manufacturers, media pundits, and soulless politicians.

As John F. Kennedy once said, “United there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided there is little we can do; for we dare not meet a powerful challenge at odds and split asunder.”

Thank you all for sharing the stage with me tonight. My warmest congratulations to you, to your parents, your teachers, and your grandparents who have supported you and encouraged you along the way. You are truly blessed. May you continue to pass those blessings on in your own histories and make the world a better place.

Un abrazo muy muy fuerte.

–Educator/ historian Michael Hogan is the author of more than 24 books including We Never Know How High We Are Till We Are Called to Rise, a collection of 15 inspirational talks he has given to NHS members. Available on Amazon at https://amzn.to/34UOXyu.


Author: LAMP

Co-founder of the Lincoln and Mexico Project. Email: lamp@lincolnandmexicoproject.org. USA: 619-246-4342. MX: +52-33-3676-5897

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.