On the first day of class – also known as “syllabus day” – I always set aside time to discuss historical thinking and historical inquiry. I am sure most of you do the same.
I often begin with the question, “Why are we here?” Or, more specifically, “Why, in its infinite wisdom, does the State of Texas require that every single student who graduates with a BA or a BS from this university, no matter their course of study or their professional aims, either take or test out of two semesters of United States history? I mean, wouldn’t some of you rather spend those six semester hours on something else? What could be the purpose of spending so much time studying the American past?”
Students are eager to discuss this issue – perhaps because it doesn’t have an easily identifiable “right answer,” perhaps because they themselves have been wanting an answer to the question, “Why the hell do I have to take this damn class?” However, the answers that come, semester after semester, generally fall under a few headings: learn from the mistakes of the past so that we don’t repeat them, learn how our current conditions came to be; become well-informed citizens who can participate in democracy; and – occasionally – learn about people whose lives would otherwise be lost to memory and forgotten by time because they mattered in their own right, not just for how they shaped the world we live in.