From the Curator's Desk

Thinking through History

Rusty Freeman - Friday, July 24, 2020

History is the story of how and why we came to be at this present moment. Thinking through History is the detective work that understands how opposing points of view changed history and behavior. To study History is to begin to make sense of the world. 

To live well and thrive in the modern-postmodern world, it is crucial to understand the history of one’s country and the world. 

The teaching of History in American public schools has been in a long decline. A 1985 article in the New York Times, “Decline and Fall of Teaching History,” reported the gradual lessening of the amount of time devoted to teaching world and US histories starting in 1960. Students that are not exposed to history remain a major concern today. 

I believe art museums have a role to play in showing the value of history and showing how to read and analyze cultural documents, including paintings, sculpture, as well as, the news, social media, and fake news. 

Art history practices the careful analysis of visual evidence. 


There is a misconception circulating today that truth or facts are not possible. Practicing careful visual and linguistic analysis of visual and written documents can foster consensus. Bias enters into any social process and can be negotiated though consensus. 

A major misconception is that History is a cut-and-dried affair with only names and dates to memorize. New scholarship in History is alive with new voices and viewpoints that have broadened horizons. 

“History is hard to teach,… because it hits so close to things young people care and worry deeply about: their ethnic, gender, and national identity, the role of America in the world, inequality and injustice in the past and present, the sources of promise and despair in our society.” See Edward Ayers, New American History, University of Richmond. 

Celebrated historian Peter N. Stearns, who taught History at the universities of Chicago, Rutgers, Carnegie Mellon, and George Mason, wrote an essay on the values in studying History. My summary follows. 

The study of History is indispensable. Reading history is the study of human aspirations, motivations, and behavior. It is the best evidence for how complex human societies interact with each other and the environment. The human struggle constantly strives to improve and learns best from past experiences. 

The present today was shaped by the past. Historians, and those who read their writings, study the psychological and sociological factors that allowed monumental change to occur. Historians also study the logics that resist change. Together, the stories of change and resistance are weighed for the social values which motivate the human condition. 

History reaches a degree of understanding about the complex lives we all lead and share. The stories of history are often beautiful and worthy of emulation and moral contemplation. History teaches by example the stories of ordinary men and women who against all odds achieved extraordinary results. 

History is the source for identity. All modern nations promote the study of history. The digital revolution has made genealogy for families a more accessible resource for identity. Institutions, businesses, ethnic groups, and communities also use history to build and maintain continuity and identity. 

History provides data for the review of the emergence of national institutions, problems, and values. History collects evidence of how nations have interacted and compares perspectives. Knowledge of these national and international relationships is a hallmark of good citizenship. 

Benefits from the study of History are many. The experience of assessing the evidence is foremost. This parallels analyzing a painting or reading the news or deciding what is fake news. 

Another benefit is assessing conflicting interpretations. The central goal of historical study is an understanding how societies work and this is inherently an imprecise project. Evaluating conflicting interpretations is an essential skill of citizenship. 

Another benefit is assessing past examples of change. This benefit is essential for evaluating change in society today. The study of historical change lends perspective and objectivity regarding the potential magnitude and significance of change in today’s world. 

The study of History builds knowledge on how to use evidence, assess interpretations, and analyze change and continuities. It provides factual information about the background of our political institutions and the values and problems that affect our collective well-being. The study of History reaches for a shared understanding of how the world works.

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