Jack Schneider is a historian of education and a professor at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell.
He wrote this essay at my request.

Why study history? It’s a legitimate question during times like these, when the future seems so uncertain. The past, one might argue, is the past; it’s what comes next that really matters. And whatever we don’t know, we can probably find on Wikipedia anyway.

The question isn’t merely theoretical. History as a school subject was crippled by No Child Left Behind’s testing requirements, which incentivized narrow instruction in English and math. But when the global pandemic pushed schools online, dramatically limiting student contact hours in the process, the slow decline of history was dramatically accelerated.

Yet the past remains as important as ever. Consider, for instance, the recent uprising over racial inequality, and the various ways Americans have interpreted the subsequent destruction of property. Donald Trump, who is broadly ignorant, but who is particularly illiterate historically, has framed such destruction as unreasoning and unprincipled. Others, by contrast, have seen in the present rebellion a clear civic message—one rooted in centuries of injustice. Such an understanding is not merely the product of racial sympathy. It is also the result of basic historical understanding. The past matters because it tells the story of how we arrived at the present. Without it, we might know where we are, but we cannot hope to understand why we’re there.

Understanding the legacy of pressing contemporary issues is clearly valuable. But the past is also instructive even when it seems hopelessly distant from the present. One reason is that history can be viewed as a series of experiments. What, we might wonder, will the political consequences of prolonged economic inequality be? Well, we can run that experiment: in Mesopotamia, ancient Rome, the Aztec empire, or among indigenous communities of the Mississippi River Valley. And though history doesn’t repeat itself, it does rhyme. So although we may never acquire the certainty of a randomized control trial, we can hope to see patterns emerge. The greatest challenges of the present—ethnic conflict, environmental crisis, political demagoguery—are all old stories.

Finally, studying history matters because of what it does for our thinking. Facts matter. Over the past four years, that has become painfully clear in a way that many of us never anticipated. But studying history isn’t about the acquisition of factual knowledge alone. Historians don’t sit down in front of textbooks and expand their memories. Instead, they work with fragmentary evidence to assemble coherent narratives rooted in context. The habits required for such work—careful reading, obsessive verification, an orientation toward complexity—are hallmarks not just of good historians, but of good citizens. Historical thinking is the enemy of sloganeering and simple solutions; it is a remedy for fake news and false choices.

History today is the stepchild of the curriculum for a variety of reasons. Textbooks are authorless collections of facts, completely out of step with the actual work that historians do. State standards documents are political battlegrounds, regularly bordering on propaganda. Instructional time has been eaten away by the demand for higher scores in tested subjects. And our track record of miseducating young people in the history classroom—through a narrative of perpetual progress and American exceptionalism—has engendered suspicion among many who rightly see themselves written-out of the past or misrepresented in its telling.

These outrages are alarming. But inasmuch as that is the case, they might be their own undoing. If they were less shocking, such offenses might be easy to dismiss or ignore; history as a school subject might fade quietly into oblivion. Remembering its importance, we might finally hear the warning siren.