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Rachel Martens: History is vital part of our education, culture

4:56 PM, Jan. 30, 2013  |  Comments
Laptop computer and textbooks
Laptop computer and textbooks

As a child, I was often bored by social studies classes. I didn't understand why we needed to know who George Washington was or why we had to memorize the names of Columbus' ships.

It's hard for a child, or even some teenagers or adults, to see why history is important and why some people like to study it.

When I was in middle school, I was interested in learning about World War II, but not enough to really make me enjoy history classes. Then, in eighth grade, my social studies teacher took a different approach. She focused on current events and ancient history, not the same old rhymes to remember Columbus' ships or the same U.S. history curriculum, in which we only ever made it to the Industrial Revolution. My class was given the chance to learn about international affairs, how elections work and who the Ancient Greeks and Romans were. I was enthralled.

In my junior year of high school, I took two classes on government and in my senior year, I took three history classes. Now, I'm pursuing a history minor in college.

I've learned there's much more to history than what a cursory glance can share with us. History is a fascinating and vital part of our education and culture.

The key is remembering that there's much more to those dates and names than bullet points to memorize. The Battle of Thermopylae may sound like just another battle but many would agree that it's a harrowing story of 300 impossibly brave and powerful Spartans, allied inconceivably with other Greek warriors, against an army of thousands of Persians, including the notorious Immortals.

Very few children would voluntarily choose to read a book - much less a nonfiction book - over watching SpongeBob. To me, this is truly a shame. What 8-year-old boy wouldn't want to hear the story of Spartacus or Achilles? What girl of virtually any age wouldn't want to hear about Helen of Troy or Nefertiti's rule as queen? Most little girls love their princesses, but there's an endless line of compelling tales of women and girls in history to choose from, not just fairy-tale characters.

As for teenagers and adults, history is so full of fascinating information that it isn't nearly as difficult as one might think to learn something truly enthralling, no matter one's interest in the academic world.

Many boys and men find their niche in the long history of wars and war technology. Some of us find entertainment in learning of political intrigue or unique historical figures. Nero, for instance, has left us with the chilling image of him playing the violin while watching Rome burn.

But why look to history for entertainment? After all, we have television and Facebook. The answer is that history is vital for all of us to understand.

It's a common phrase that those who don't know their history are doomed to repeat it. Proof of the validity of this statement is written in red ink all across history and into the modern era.

One of the biggest contributors to the fall of Rome was its overexpansion and inability to control its territories. Why then, do nations constantly make a campaign for imperialism and, shortly thereafter, lose all they gained? European nations competed for colonies from the 15th century onward, but have ultimately found themselves again restricted to their original borders.

In the modern world, we must learn from mistakes. How can we prevent tragedy, economic turmoil and anger after a war if we don't understand the implications of the Treaty of Versailles? How can we know the danger of charismatic leaders if we don't understand Hitler's rise to power? How can we work toward better futures when we don't predict the dangers of our leaders corrupting our ideals, as in the Russian Revolution? The answer to all of these questions is knowing our history.

In America, we have a rare and precious gift. It's called democracy. Democracy grants us the right to have a say in our country's decisions and representatives. However, democracy requires that its people are educated and take on their responsibility to vote and participate.

According to a recent study done by Xavier University, one in three native-born citizens of the U.S. would fail the civics portion of the citizenship test and 82 percent of those surveyed couldn't name two rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence. If we don't understand history and government, how can we confidently cast our vote? It's our duty as American citizens to understand our past and present to mold our future.

History is the key to progress in the modern world. We must learn from the past to find a better future. Besides, history can be far more interesting than Facebook.

- Rachel Martens is a Hortonville resident, a St. Norbert College student and a Post-Crescent Community Columnist. She can be reached at pcletters@postcrescent.com

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