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Miss Elder on Why History Is Important

As a Social Studies teacher, one of the most common questions I receive is “Why do we have to learn history?” At first, I used to suppress the need of my inner teenager to sigh heavily when hearing this question. But then it hit me; you are asking this question because you really don’t know! And shock… it is MY job to teach you this. I always thought teaching was just about content- wars, people, inventions; the list could go on forever. It had never really occurred to me that students needed to know why it was important before they learned how it was important. Can we say face-palm moment?

I can share with you the experiences I had where I personally figured out why studying history was important and it didn’t happen in a classroom. It happened in a regular conversation I had with my Nana and Pop-Pop when I was about 15 years old. We used to have weekly lunches at their house (picture a small house that would jam pack around 30 family members each Saturday), and in this house I learned to love history. In this house there was one strict rule at lunch—never put anything on your plate you didn’t intend to eat. Our eyes were not allowed to be bigger than our stomachs! One day I dared to ask my Pop “why”? I was 15 and questioned everything that impacted my right to make an independent decision. You can probably insert some teen angst with this question too.

What my snarky teenage question did was open up a conversation with my grandparents about what it was like to grow up in the 1930s. More specifically, what it was like to do without a lot of things during this time. Until they opened up about their experiences in the Depression, I never really considered what it was like to live without, and to be used to this! Food was a luxury some people didn’t have, and it wasn’t to be wasted. Their home was something they could lose, and they were thankful to have a roof over their heads. Out in the real world, people were losing their homes and begging for food. How could they consider wasting when so many did without? It was from them I learned the why. College only taught me the how.

From then on, family get-togethers were history lessons. They still are! My Dad’s dad talked about WWII more frequently, because I asked. It’s not like it was a new revelation he had served during this war, but history was now alive for me. People I knew and loved experienced many great and fascinating things. No textbook could teach me this! Each get-together inspired a new appreciation and fascination for history. Taking out old family photos, hearing stories of when my great-grandfather owned a pub in Philadelphia and how he was connected to a small Irish mob (just ask me about my Nana’s engagement ring sometime!). These were moments that I will cherish forever. History was about people. History was about life. History was about ME, and it is about you, too. Next time you are with your family members, ask them about their past. See if you can figure out why it is important to learn history from them!