In honor of the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, I'd like to say a little something about why the study of history matters.
Now, unlike my esteemed blogfellow Historiann , I'm not a historian, nor do I play one on tv, although I get a little dramatic in class sometimes about historical events. I'm what movie stars or the Mafia would call a "civilian" as far as history is concerned--an interested civilian, one whose idea of a good book is something by Drew Gilpin Faust or Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, but a civilian nonetheless.
When I was in elementary school and we learned about the Civil War, we learned that it was fought over slavery. Slavery was wrong, and the North wanted to put an end to it, and the South wanted to keep their slaves, and they fired on the North at Fort Sumter, and the war was on. We had learned about Harriet Tubman (but not Frederick Douglass), and we admired her work on the Underground Railroad. There were, in fact, some Underground Railroad houses in the area, although I didn't know that at the time.
When I got to high school, though, I was told that slavery was not the cause of the Civil War. No, that was a simplistic, babyish way of looking at the causes. "States' rights" was the issue, plain and simple: a conflict between the federal government and the states over governance. This may have been the same year we learned about "triangular trade" rather than "the slave trade." At any rate, I remember this vividly because it made no sense to me to be told that slavery was just a side issue, basically an economic spat in which the North wanted to deprive the South of its labor force. People were being bought and sold, yet "states' rights" was the issue? That seemed just plain wrong, even to a daydreaming teenager like myself, but history was presented as Holy Writ back then.
Here's why the study of history matters: because otherwise history gets taught as Holy Writ in one immutable narrative strain with no acknowledgment that it is just one of a number of strains and not necessarily the best one. What I realized some years ago is that my history teacher, high school edition, must have been caught up by the revisionist Southern historians and that that was the narrative he was teaching us. We did not know that there were other strands that told a more truthful story, or that historians were always working on finding more information and telling a more truthful story. But that's what studying history teaches you--that the story is always evolving--and that's why I'm glad there are historians.