Studying the Past Remains Crucial to the Present

The popularity of STEM courses has not diminished the importance of studying history.

By Ellen Sheehy

Last winter, four students from the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology visited my Chemistry class and gave a presentation pitching the benefits of STEM majors in college. The attractiveness is high, mostly due to the lucrative job opportunities available after graduation. And while I will never choose that path (I can’t imagine spending the next four decades of my life doing math), I can understand why many of my peers probably will.  Louis Masur suggests in his article “Why History Matters” that this growing interest in STEM subjects, paired with history majors becoming more specialized, has resulted in a swift decline of students choosing history as their college major. Some colleges, including the University of Wisconsin, have eliminated the major altogether. 

Masur claims that this “irreverence for the past” is not new in America: “history has a long history of being ignored, in part because a persuasive case for why history matters has not always been made…. Studying the past has also lost credibility because of continuing culture wars over what should be taught.” In other words, history is being forgotten because of a failure on the part of history lovers to convince regular people why it is important, and because there have been so many arguments about which parts to teach and how to teach them. 

Masur insists that despite the difficulties associated with history, it should be studied

not because of proximity, but because of distance, because once upon a time people lived differently than we now live. There is a foreignness to the past that we must seek to take on its own terms. At the same time, stories about the drama of life long ago might give us pause, a chance to contemplate our common humanity with those who came before. At its most purposeful, examining past lives can lead us to examine our own.

In the end Masur proposes, “Students should take STEM courses, but they should also be required to study history.”

I agree with what Masur writes because personally, I better understand what is going on in the world today after learning about the history of the United States. For example, having studied slavery and the Civil War, I can see where so much of the racism and problems associated with it in the United States arise from. White slave owners spent more than a century convincing themselves that slavery was not a great evil, James McPherson observes in his book Battle Cry of Freedom, and they didn’t easily leave those beliefs behind. In the American South,

The sense of evil had faded by 1830 as the growing demand for cotton fastened the tentacles of a booming plantation economy in the South. Abolitionist attacks on slavery placed southernerns on the defensive and goaded them into angry counterattacks. By 1840 slavery… was “a great moral, social, and political blessing–a blessing to the slave, a blessing to the master.” (56)

 William H. Seward, the United States Secretary of State during the Civil War, maintained that “Whether or not slavery was backward and inefficient… it was extraordinarily productive” (McPherson 39). Slave owners made easy money, and lots of it, and that was very attractive to them. So they worked to justify the unthinkable cruelty they inflicted on hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children. Senator Robert M. T. Hunter of Virginia, for example, argued that “there is not a respectable system of civilization known to history whose foundations were not laid on the institution of domestic slavery,” and Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina said that instead of an evil, slavery was “a positive good… the most safe and stable basis for free institutions in the world” (qtd. in McPherson 56). I can’t imagine believing what those people professed, but they did, and strongly enough that they were willing to fight a long bloody war for it. 

Frederick Douglass called slavery “the guilty cause of all our national troubles” and the repercussions of it have followed Americans through the centuries since it was abolished. It affects the lives of everyone who lives in the United States, and if we pay attention, we can learn important lessons from it–one being the extent to which humans are willing to embrace evil if they can gain anything from it. 

Slavery is just one of the many parts of the past that greatly influences the present. What we know of history influences our thoughts, actions, and decisions, so it should be important to people to learn what they can, even if they don’t care to spend four years majoring in it.

Works Cited