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History Classes Are Mostly Useless

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SS: Americans are rather ignorant about history. Moral reasoning by historical analogy is bad. Historical examples can be misleading for making predictions. These facts suggest that the utility of history courses is overestimated. In fact, they are mostly useless.

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If you wish people to understand current events they must understand the events that preceded them. It's really that simple. How can one understand what's happening in Ukraine without at least a little knowledge of WWI and WWII and Soviet Russia?

I put forth that understanding current events, at least a little bit, is important in democracies (but not dictatorships) because citizens must decide on representatives who will vote on many things having to do with current events - if they understand nothing of the context, they can't understand the issue, they can't make an informed vote, and democracy becomes more superficial.

The thrust of this article can be generalized to almost everything taught in school. Most students will not remember physics, geography, biology, art, or anything else. The article is not pessimistic enough.

However, on a slight tangent. History education was useful for me (might not generalize to the population). I went to a British Curriculum school (Edexcel A-Level), and most of the curriculum was 20th century Europe based, WW1, WW2, Cold War.

History was useful (to me) not because of knowing facts or dates, but because certain patterns of societies doing certain things emerged. If anything this is the "true" reason to learn history (to not repeat mistakes of the past).

History is the training set for sociology or political science-based models.

Generally agree however I'd substitute 'realistic' for your "pessimistic." All authorities try to influence through education and especially the next generation.

Ideally, we would be taught self-knowledge/emotion mgt.(e.g. mindfulness) and critical thinking along with foundational humanities(+self-directed), basic STEM(+self-directed), life skills(e.g. home/car maintenance, budgeting, cooking, etc.) and for the love of god some generic sex-ed since we make half our adult decisions on some level of such attraction/aversion(conscious & especially unconscious).

[The following is one of many quotes I could have chosen]

"But if you look, the content of so-called modern education - very much orientated about material value. Not talking about inner value. So now, today, the best educated people, emotionally - lot of problem!" he says, and once again bursts into delighted laughter."

--The ancient wisdom the Dalai Lama hopes will enrich the world, BBC News, 13 March 2018

The goal of education should, IMO, be socially responsible adults in a society that not only permits but encourages individual creative expression.

I have an article coming soon arguing that this applies to all areas. I think education is tremendously wasteful. I would be more in favor of history if it was taught in a rigorous and more scientific way rather than in a more narrative form.

School serves multiple purposes:

  1. daycare

  2. instillment of the shared values

  3. making useful worker drones

  4. forcing kids to try a lot of stuff so they can choose what to do when they graduate

  5. making well-rounded self-sufficient citizens is the last and the most useless for "the man"

Which of these purposes would benefit from teaching history in a rigorous and more scientific way? #4 would, but who the hell cares about an improvement in the quality of history majors? #5 would, but that's just a step towards elite overproduction

Feel free to share that article as well.

Just be aware that this topic has already been explored by Brian Caplan and Freddie DeBoer, so try to argue something not talked about before.

There will be overlap of course but I think I’ll bring new ideas. This article wasn’t very well-received but at least it generated some discussion.

How can you identify patterns, if not through learning facts and dates? And of course, the facts you do learn (because nobody can learn all of them) are going to strongly influence your conclusions.

If anything this is the "true" reason to learn history (to not repeat mistakes of the past).

Depends on what you consider a mistake - was open immigration a mistake? Decolonization? The Town and Country Planning Act of 1947?

Math Classes Are Mostly Useless

Americans are rather ignorant about math. Folk reasoning by math is usually bad - many common fallacies are based on math. Using math poorly can be misleading for making predictions - naive application of math is responsible for many ponzi schemes and lost investments. These facts suggest that the utility of math courses is overestimated. In fact, they are mostly useless.

--

Even if they're useless for 80% of the population, and 10% of the population will learn it anyway, math/literature forced-education of some sort potentially causes a lot of people to make better decisions / be smarter / more productive than they otherwise would. Even if the right move is to filter most of the population out of history/math classes, and only keep 10-20% in ... that's still a very different message than 'history classes are useless'.

not that i'm a fan of schools or education!

This makes my argument look worse because it changes a word in my premise. But changing a word drastically alters the argument. For example:

Article:

Title: Eating animals is wrong

Subtitle: Animals are in inhumane conditions. Animals suffer a lot! Do not eat them.

Comment:

Eating plants is wrong

Plants are in inhumane conditions. Plants suffer a lot! Do not eat them.

Obviously, you cannot refute my argument by changing the meaning/words in the argument.


I did not say 'history classes are useless.' I said "history classes are mostly useless."

I actually endorse the animals/plants comparison because suffering is only bad in that it is absence-of-goodness, or deprival of goodness or ability of some sort - not-killing-animals by replacing them with plants causes the animals to not ever exist, which is transparently worse than existing and dying, whether that death is by human or natural hands. So the suffering you're preventing is just the animal's knowledge of its terrible situation and untimely end, which isn't made better by not living at all. Plants suffer too - they have 'pain responses' and attempt to avoid death and deprival - but their suffering is manifestly less because of their lesser capability.

My point was that even if only a small minority of students get something out of history, it's still worth teaching, and the same is true of math. And maybe the math and history rub off a bit on the students who mostly aren't getting anything out of it. Now, as an entirely separate educational issue, and this is much of why most math and history education is pointless - students are taught both history and math in a way totally detached from any practical use by the student, the student can't even act out miniature versions of historical lessons in their own goals or trials because there are none other than 'do what the teacher says to do' homework assignments, and sports or video games, neither of which even attempt to replicate the complexity of human organization or technical development. So nobody is actually learning how to govern a country, or even how to run a furniture factory or improve a product for one's own use - what does one even use of one's own making? Kids should be making real products and having real political struggles - real in the sense they have complex, organic ties to output or real goals - in miniature.

If what we’re after is improving the reasoning of Americans, then we should orient a class around analyzing varied texts, understanding fallacies, appreciating good reasoning, and comprehending philosophical approaches and complex sentence structures.

Saying history class is good because 2% of the time they do this is like saying every student should spend 10 years learning the marine biology of the Mariana Trench because 2% of the time they read graph and statistics.

OP does not want to erase history class and replace it with thumb twiddling. Of course he would like to replace it with a class which more efficiently produces a desired character.

Of course he would like to replace it with a class which more efficiently produces a desired character.

Here's where I start swearing like a trooper. Every time a government starts mucking around with education to produce "desired character", students end up more fucking ignorant than before. I can't speak to America, but governments of all stripes in my country keep fiddling around with the curriculum to appease potential employers and churn out workplace-ready drones. Back in the 80s it was a push to learn foreign languages, particularly German, since the school leavers (17-18 years of age) would have to emigrate to find work. Need I say our language proficiency is still terrible? In the 90s biotechnology was going to be the coming thing. In the 00s it was computers. Now it's still heavy emphasis on STEM.

Which is great, but not everybody can 'learn to code' and not everybody is good at maths. There is also the pressure from the other side, of "Why did I have to do X/Y/Z subject in school, it's boring and irrelevant?" from parents and from former students.

Nobody ever considers "I was too stupid for the subject", no, it's "this is boring". However, for a bunch of teenagers, everything is boring except if they have a particular interest, so they don't want to learn anything. That's why we have compulsory schooling and subjects you have to take, sorry, don't care if you're bored and would rather be messing around on your phone or hanging out with your friends.

It's not until much later in life you realise "I wish I had paid more attention in class" or "I wish I knew more about X/Y/Z".

Yeah, a lot of people won't know, won't care and can get on without X/Y/Z. But the point of school is not just to churn out workplace ready drones who can be slotted in and out of whatever role employers want right this minute, it's to educate you, to expose you to a range of things so that you can see what is out there in the world.

And without such classes, then we end up with "the History Channel - all Nazis all the time!" because that's what sells.

Now - do schools teach subjects badly, are curricula terribly designed, do we try to cram everyone into 'one size fits all'? Yes to all those. But "a class which more efficiently produces a desired character" is not going to happen by tweaks and new pedagogical theories - again, I think the US has experimented with all those, from No Child Left Behind to 'no teaching to read using phonics', and there is furious debate over how well all those have worked.

First, we have to define what, exactly, is the character we desire to produce, and why, and for whose benefit.

Second, we have to find a method that will do such, and that does mean trying to overcome "I'm bored, I don't want to be here, the apps on my phone are more interesting and attention-grabbing and have hooked my brain successfully because that is what they're designed to do" in the mass of students because kids won't realise until years later that they do need to know this, or they would get benefit out of that.

Worst of all is the situation I think we're approaching right now, where kids don't know stuff, don't care about being ignorant, and instead use the demands of the day to get their own way - like the Muslim student who got an art history professor fired over historical Muslim depictions of Mohammed, because they've been inculcated successfully in 'structural racism, identity politics, ignorance is the most powerful weapon, and loud screaming gets me my way'. A functional university would have stood up for the professor and reminded the student what the purpose of an education is. This university is instead dedicated to 'more efficiently producing a desired character', which is one of ignorant entitlement based on manipulating the woke weapons of today.

If what we’re after is improving the reasoning of Americans, then we should orient a class around analyzing varied texts, understanding fallacies, appreciating good reasoning, and comprehending philosophical approaches and complex sentence structures.

A good high-school level history class is spending 30-50% of the time on these things. The academic discipline of history is using written primary sources to understand a complex sequence of events. You need to memorize dates so you can put the events in chronological order, which is kind of basic to reasoning about cause and effect. My wife is trying to learn some history as part of research for her novel, and the biggest barrier to entry is that if you don't have key dates in your head you can't place the events you are reading about in sequence with your background knowledge.

You can't learn critical thinking without doing it, and you can't think critically without thinking critically about something. And you can't think critically about something without a basic level of domain knowledge. Compared to other high school subjects, history is a good (but by no means the only) way to do this.

I really do not think that a high school history class increases reasoning in such a way that makes it better than alternatives. It’s “peruse this text your teacher makes you read to highlight keywords and dates”. There’s no actual analysis. And the essays you have to write encourage basic opinions, based on basic topics.

I am afraid you are all way overestimating influence of school education, especially history education.

See one historical event that is very important to the TPTB, historical event that is widely promoted to the point that special classes in schools are dedicated exclusively to teaching about this event (in addition to enormous space in popular mass media dedicated to this event)

Now, how effective was all this effort?

https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/survey-finds-shocking-lack-holocaust-knowledge-among-millennials-gen-z-n1240031

https://www.claimscon.org/millennial-study/

A nationwide survey released Wednesday shows a "worrying lack of basic Holocaust knowledge" among adults under 40, including over 1 in 10 respondents who did not recall ever having heard the word "Holocaust" before.

The survey, touted as the first 50-state survey of Holocaust knowledge among millennials and Generation Z, showed that many respondents were unclear about the basic facts of the genocide. Sixty-three percent of those surveyed did not know that 6 million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, and over half of those thought the death toll was fewer than 2 million. Over 40,000 concentration camps and ghettos were established during World War II, but nearly half of U.S. respondents could not name a single one.

The 1619 Project and the rest of the politicised teaching is precisely why we need history classes in school - and yeah, first we start off with the basic, boring, dull 'learn off dates and places' version of history to give a foundation. After that, things like sources, where do we get our knowledge of the past, how do we construct narratives and critical thinking are part of it, or should be.

Otherwise, we end up with the packaged ideology version as above, which isn't history but is passed off as it.

Depends entirely on the teacher.

I've had some classes where a brain dead octogenarian drooled revisionist bullshit about 'States rights' out of their pie hole, and really excellent classes where a dude who refuses to wear anything but shorts, t shirts and flipflops forces everyone to pick a side in the revolution and argue that perspective for 15 minutes before switching instead of assigning homework.

Well, that's how we all start. We learn the Approved Version of the national myth, then we moved past it to greater detail as we got older and went on to other classes/grades. Though I think the Approved Version today has swung round to the "Founding Fathers all bad, slave-owners, racism" message.

But even the basic "dates, battles, places, famous names" version is something. I don't know how many times I've seen quotes bandied around online where even a basic, cursory knowledge of history would let you realise that "someone from that period would not have said that, they would not have expressed those views, those concepts and that language are from the 20th century". But people just swallow it that the Buddha or Abraham Lincoln or Moses said something along the lines of "Live, laugh, love". And that's down to chronological ignorance.

Worse, the Founding Fathers myth went straight from “Freedom, bitches!” to “Freedom to enslave and exploit, mwah hah hah!” without stopping at “Freedom to create, to trade, to own one’s own prosperity.” This is a mortal wound if no one defends it.

It's the difference between "history as mythopoetic identity formation tool" and "history as window-on-human-nature."

History class was life-changing for me, so I feel duty bound to defend it. Why? Because it is where I learned to write. And in my school, it was the only subject apart from English where I could have learned to write. This Paul Graham essay is basically an attack on the idea of teaching writing entirely by getting kids to write about English literature, and I agree with it.

Why is history a good class to teach analytical/argumentative writing in. Firstly, because it isn't bullshit (in the Harry Frankfurt sense). There have been times and places where the history curriculum was full of lies, but it is only full of bullshit in late-stage totalitarian regimes. Literary criticism, on the other hand... This means that the teacher can insist on a distinction between valid and invalid arguments, and between good and bad use of evidence. Secondly, history is traditionally an "essay subject" so the teachers have the skills required to teach writing, which (say) geography teachers generally don't. Thirdly, the skills you need to "do history" at a high school level - i.e. assessment of documentary sources and developing a functional understanding of a complex sequence of events - can be tested through essay-writing (a pop quiz on dates and facts is a useful formative assessment, but the final summative assessment is all essays), whereas even if they include essay questions a geography exam is mostly mapwork and a physics exam (at least at high school level) is mostly demonstrating understanding by working out the correct formula to apply to a problem and plugging numbers into it.

You can learn to write in school, and it is a transferrable skill. In fact, it is one of the few transferrable skills you can teach (to the minority of kids who are able and willing to learn) in school at all. For me, it was history class where I did - and I strongly suspect that I am not the only one.

I am always bemused by people insisting that history classes only ever teach a Schoolhouse Rock version of American history. I mean, maybe in first grade. Or maybe that's what everyone else's classes were like.

Mine were reasonably thorough (given the limited amount of time a junior high or high school class usually has to cover all of World or American history). Sure, there was a pro-America bias, but we weren't taught that the American Revolution and the Civil War and World War II was all Heroes vs. Villains. This view of some past era where American students were only ever taught a mythic version of American history reminds me of Gen-Zers nowadays who claim that past generations were "never taught" about America's history of racism and slavery. Well, excuse me, yes, we covered that too. You are not the first generation to discover the horrible truth that history is messy and gray and full of horrors.

Moral reasoning by historical analogy is bad.

Perhaps, but modeling the way the world works and likely consequences of political actions based on historical evidence (even at a very basic level of "Has this ever been tried before, and what happened?") is very useful.

In fact, they are mostly useless.

Not if they are well taught. (If they're poorly taught, well, a poorly taught math or reading or science class is also mostly useless.)

Lack of historical perspective is in fact something I see very often here on TheMotte, even from very articulate effort-posters. I think we should have more historical education.

History, even poor history, classes will help at least somewhat against the whole revisionist idea of the past (unless, as seems increasingly the case, the institutions are captured and the ideologues get to set the curriculum where they push their views). Why is "Bridgerton" a fantasy version of Regency England and not realism? Even if there were black and other non-white people living in the UK at the time? Why doesn't it make sense to have Diverse and Inclusive communities in TV shows and movies that are set in the past, or a version of the past, even if those are fantasy? Why isn't it enough to say "This is fantasy, you can accept dragons and magic but not a black elf"? Why is this a fucking dumb thing to say? "It felt only natural to us that an adaptation of Tolkien’s work would reflect what the world actually looks like,” says Lindsey Weber, executive producer of the series."

If all you are getting is the rainbow diversity version of what the past supposedly looked like, then when you eventually come up some instance of how it really was, of course you are going to cry racism and all the other -isms and -phobes. But you are still wrong.

I don't think I insisted that history classes are "only ever" taught one way. Furthermore, I don't exactly know what you mean by Schoolhouse Rock version.

"This view of some past era where American students were only ever taught a mythic version of American history"

I did not say American students were "only ever" taught a mythical version. I said:

Furthermore, not only is the sample of historical examples not necessarily random, but it is also often curated to tell a specific narrative that is flattering to one’s nation or appeals to the ideology of the curriculum makers. Given a vast expanse of history, with millions of historical events, it becomes possible to create a curriculum that tells almost any narrative you want. In America, one of the most dominant historical narratives is that history is a struggle between the oppressor classes—men, whites, heterosexuals, the rich—and the oppressed class—ethnic minorities, women, LGBTQ+, and the poor. Another possible curated narrative might highlight all the good actions of the American government or the oppressor class without describing any atrocities and failures.

Which, I think is a more measured statement that most would agree with.

Perhaps, but modeling the way the world works and likely consequences of political actions based on historical evidence (even at a very basic level of "Has this ever been tried before, and what happened?") is very useful.

I argued in the article that Phil Tetlock found that superficial historical analogies didn't aid in reasoning about predicting the future. I argue that taking a more data-driven approach to history is better.

Not if they are well taught. (If they're poorly taught, well, a poorly taught math or reading or science class is also mostly useless.)

I agree that history courses would be much better if they were well taught and used a more data-driven approach. I critique the current system as it is. You would still have the problem of information retention that I discussed.

Historical examples can be misleading for making predictions.

You know what's even more misleading for making predictions? A complete absence of historical examples. You're extrapolating way too much from "this thing is flawed" to "this thing is useless" without comparing it to the alternative. People are already really bad at critical thinking about events and politics, we don't need less we need more. Now, you can make a really good argument that history classes should be improved to deliver more value per time rather than making them longer (which I would be inclined to agree with). But the idea that they have no value to give is absurd.

Thanks for your thoughts MathWizard. Let me clarify something: I do not say "this thing is useless" or that history classes have "no value to give." Those are not quotations from the article.

That sort of absolute statement would be unmeasured. However, I do defend the thesis that "History Classes Are Mostly Useless." When I am critical of education, I try to be critical of practices as they currently exist. Of course I agree that "improved" classes that "deliver more value per time" is better than the current arrangement.

The problem with "history classes are mostly useless" is that this won't be used by those who can set what is taught in curricula for "we should improve history classes" but rather "we should junk history classes altogether and teach something Relevant To The Youth", in the same way they keep trying to dump the Dead White Males out of English classes. Culturally relevant texts then become something selected by a bunch of middle-class college-educated white liberals, or by activists from minority groups, and have little to do with what the kids in the class need.

So "history classes are mostly useless" may get used as the lever to dump history and instead indoctrinate the kids in the Correct, Officially Approved, way of thinking. The past was all racist, and all the bad people are on this side and all the good people are on that side.

Swapping out one set of simplistic bromides for another.

I explicitly say in this article that one of my concerns about history is the creation of ideological narratives, including the social justice narrative. If my argument is used for the opposite conclusion as I argue, it is not my fault.

It's too bad because video games can offer a really neat way to learn about history, by putting you in the shoes of historical decision makers. Pirates showed why a nimble fast ship that can sail close to the wind is better than a more powerful one. Europa Universalis makes it easy to set up the 30 years war and really get why incentives were on leaders at the time to act the way they did.

Only if the games accurately identify, and code in, relevant historical factors. Which are often extremely non-sexy, and hard to make interesting games about.

Using video games for this is just a special case of "beware fictional evidence".

As an example: kids are taught that the American Revolution was a noble effort by our founding fathers to liberate the colonies from a tyrant, thereby providing its people with rights. They are told this to be spared from the more grounded idea that the American Revolution was a bid by the colonial intelligentsia to gain power by waging war against their rulers, and that the Constitution was something they made up to rile colonists up despite local colonial legislatures and parliament already trending towards whatever it proposed at the time.

Oh, come off it. First, we start kids off with ABC, not with "War and Peace", when teaching them to read. Second, your "more grounded idea" is every bit as subjective a preferred interpretation as the noble revolution bit. "Da elitez wanned powah for theyselves and riled up iggnerant bumpkinz' is an ideological statement, too.

"The Constitution was something they made up" - yes, most foundational documents are like that. So are laws, and governments, and every field of human endeavour: it starts with people trying to set down what it is they think and what that means. The Constitution did not descend from heaven borne by the Archangel Gabriel, impeccable and inerrant in every word.

Were the local elite and powerbrokers trying to grab power and influence for themselves? Yes. Were there also some who were motivated by idealism? Yes. Ferment was in the air; this was 'the Age of Enlightenment' and the American revolutionaries and young nation sought out support over the years from France and other sympathetic ears. Thomas Paine was eagerly read by all classes. Even if "the colonial intelligentsia" only meant to fake up an excuse for a power grab, their creation took on a life of its own and inspired and influenced ideas about liberty, private rights, and what it means to be a citizen instead of a subject.

This is what history is and should be; the examination of ideas, the tracing out of influences, and how arguments can be constructed and defended or critiqued about our interpretation of the past and our view of what is happening right now.

They are told this to be spared from the more grounded idea that the American Revolution was a bid by the colonial intelligentsia to gain power by waging war against their rulers, and that the Constitution was something they made up to rile colonists up despite local colonial legislatures and parliament already trending towards whatever it proposed at the time.

I don't think this is really true. The Constitution was not written until several years after the end of the war with the UK, at which point the goal was not to rile anyone up, but to place the governance of the country on a stable and permanent basis. In addition, it was not simply 'made up' as a political ploy. We can go and read the personal letters and writing of the drafters of the Constitution, and it's quite clear that they took the document and the issues involved quite seriously and were sincerely concerned for the long term future of their nascent country. And I think it's a little facile to suggest that Parliament and the colonial legislatures would have arrived at the same place. The UK still, over 200 years later, does not have a written constitution and does not explicitly guarantee many of the rights in the US Constitution.

The UK still, over 200 years later, does not have a written constitution and does not explicitly guarantee many of the rights in the US Constitution.

The US did not guarantee the rights in the Constitution until well into the 20th century. The Bill of Rights was de jure unenforceable against State governments until the Civil War (and given the limits on the power of the feds viz-a-viz the States, which were taken seriously back then, the States were far more dangerous to individuals). The Bill of Rights remained de facto unenforceable during the Jim Crow era - the Slaughterhouse cases was the line of doctrine justifying this. Given the politics of the founding, I think both the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists would be horrified by the degree of centralisation required for the Feds to effectively guarantee individual rights against the States.

These classes impress upon children the idealistic, shallow notion that individuals - not geopolitical trends and perpetual power imbalances - are responsible for shaping the course of history

This is the annoying structuralist vs great man theory debate. Clearly the answer is both. Kant, jesus, napoleon, von neumann - clearly these people were products of their time, and were deeply shaped by their intellectual milleus and material situations - but if any of them were shot at age 10, history would've played out very differently in many ways. And both the individuals and structures make each other, such that it's difficult to even separate them.

It's a balance: "Great Men" don't do it on their own (without an army behind him, Bonaparte is just another young man from a Corsican family with more status than cash trying to get on in the world via a military career), but at times certainly a "Great Man" comes forward to inspire or guide or direct or simply seize the chance to get their hands on the tiller of the state. Would the Mongol Empire still have arisen without Genghis Khan? It's hard to say.

The vast, impersonal forces of time and circumstance do shape populations and events. But at the same time, there are influences from who is on the throne at the time, is the decision for war or peace, is the ruler weak or strong? Rome would always have fallen, but would the West have survived longer if the inherent instability of the Tetrarchy had been steadied? Could the East have been saved?

Napoleon singlehandedly did have a huge effect on European history. The Black Death was something outside of human control that swept over the continent.

I think there are some places where it does seem to be structural and some places where you have a Great Man.

The fall of the Soviet Union seems mostly structural to me - long-running economic stagnation while the West got richer created widespread discontent, which eventually led to a situation where nobody could bail out the boat because everyone was bailing out of the boat. It could have ended differently, in the sense that there could have been WWIII instead, but I don't think any particular person destroyed the Soviet Union and I'm not sure any particular person could have saved it where Gorbachev failed (though perhaps someone else replacing Brezhnev might have had a chance).

The US's incredible military capability in WWII, basically carrying the Pacific War by itself, doesn't map onto anyone's then-recent decisions AFAIK; it really does just seem to be "the country was big and rich, and quantity has a quality all its own".

Bill Gates also doesn't seem like a Great Man to me. The time of consumer computers had come; remove him from the picture and somebody else founds a massive software company worth gigabucks a little bit later. The same applies to a lot of corporate tycoons, though Elon Musk has some claim to GMhood given that most of the things he's done are things widely thought infeasible.

I agree that GMT has a lot of applicability, and that the claims that nobody ever matters are wishful thinking born out of SJ doctrine, but trends do also matter.

I think with Gates, you could argue that, while nobody wouldn't exploit the second boom of home computing, the actual software landscape might look a lot different without MS's tactics with DOS and Windows. Still, it is somewhat structural, so this counterfactual world might still end up at something like what we have now.

These classes impress upon children the idealistic, shallow notion that individuals - not geopolitical trends and perpetual power imbalances - are responsible for shaping the course of history.

Of course they do. No society can survive when its children are taught from the outset that their society is not worth surviving. Children need to learn ideals toward which to strive, and be given a reason for participating positively as part of a larger society.

Independent students may later dig into the more complicated realities, but it's societal suicide to breed cynicism and self-loathing in kids, as we are possibly seeing now in the U.S., where kids have been taught eco doomerism and self-hating history since the 1990s.

eco doomerism

Was it really that? I feel like it was actually optimistic, the doomerism came later.

As someone who was around for Captain Planet, I must reiterate that I remember the messaging around environmental issues being generally optimistic, or at least saying that there were solutions. Population crash/mass die-off is something that has only recently re-entered the Overton window.

The 70s (Ehrlich's "Population Bomb") were the doom-and-disaster era where we were going to run out of oil, run out of room because of all the people, possibly freeze/possibly boil to death depending on whether it was the New Ice Age or Greenhouse Earth was in vogue, we might have Nuclear Winter due to World War III and generally civilisation would crash and take us all with it.

The 90s rebounded with optimism: sure, things are not great, but we can fix them if we do this now! "Captain Planet" and recycling and all the rest of it. Everything was green and ecological.

I suppose we're back in the trough now, after the peak. Maybe there's a new peak to follow, like the 90s followed the 70s.

These classes impress upon children the idealistic, shallow notion that individuals - not geopolitical trends and perpetual power imbalances - are responsible for shaping the course of history.

While trends are notable, ignoring the role of individuals is idiocy. Do you, for instance, think that if Donald Trump did not exist, the recent flow of US history would have unfolded identically with another in his place? Do you think that had Vasily Arhkipov consented to launching a nuclear torpedo at a US warship, the Long Peace would still have held?

Or, going forward, do you really think that an invasion of Taiwan and probable Third World War would happen if Xi Jinping were to simply say "no" at any point?

Agreed with premise. History classes today are half trivia and half moral lessons. The trivia is meaningless, and the lessons are faulty. WW1 and American Revolution lessons are entirely trivia, with no influence on your appreciation for reality or ability to live a meaningful life. Lessons on women earning the right to vote become faulty morality: men for most of history were simply evil and putting women down, pay no attention to the impossibility of female enfranchisement without modern technology and a safe modern state.

I’m trying to think if there’s anything of value to be gained from history, and indeed there is: art history, the history of philosophy, and music history will present you with beautiful things that can genuinely inspire you and make your life better. Everything? The battles, the dates, the elections? No value. We’re not raising military generals, we are raising median adults. “War bad” is not a legitimate moral lesson.

I think a more unstructured education system where we just gather a bunch of history that is beautiful and let students pursue their interests would be more ethical. If it has to be structured, it needs to improve students critical thinking about the future, curent events, geopolitics, etc. I am skeptical that this is the case to any large extent.

we just gather a bunch of history that is beautiful

And who decides what is beautiful? We've had the criticised Foundation Myths version of history, where all the past was gleaming and glorious and all our heroes were flawless. Then we swung round to feet of clay, all muck and misery, racism and sexism forever.

I don't want somebody's idea of "beautiful" history. I never liked the "in the Matriarchal past, all was beer and skittles and then the awful men invented Patriarchy" version of history that some strains of loopy feminism mixed with Wicca produced in the 70s, and I don't want a modernised 21st century version of hippie history. I want the bad parts and the good parts, the entire human mess of it, the gold and the dung. Like Lenny sang, "You don't want to lie, not to the young".

And if we give them only the beautiful history, how then will they feel when they find out the parts we hid from them? How will they ever trust a teaching voice again? The Horrible History books, way back in the mists of time, took as their selling point "the gory bits they don't teach you in school" and the entire production has been immensely popular ever since.

I think a more unstructured education system where we just gather a bunch of history that is beautiful and let students pursue their interests would be more ethical.

This worked for moldbug or scott, but does it really work for the 'average american', or even the 95th percentile american? Looking at popular consumption of history, or popular culture generally ... 10 TOP HISTORY FAILS with a stablediffusion of lincoln soyfacing. Forcing students to read books they don't care about and fill out multiple choice questions is dumb, it keeps them from developing will to do things and solve problems in their own interests - but just letting them read and write about whatever they want is both impossible to implement and wouldn't work much better.

art history, the history of philosophy, and music history will present you with beautiful things that can genuinely inspire you and make your life better.

You're making the same mistake here. People who genuinely think "history useless" will have no use for art, music or philosophy history either. "What do I care who painted some dumb picture three hundred years ago? Yawn Rap is better than Mozart" and so on. We've had those very discussions on here before; 'schools should only teach STEM because those are real things that are useful when you get a job being creative and contributing to growing the economy, all that English and music crap can be faked up in ten minutes for an essay because there are no objective standards as in maths or physics".

"Beautiful things" that "make your life better" are meaningless by that metric because "nobody makes money off those, they don't grow the economy, they're dumb and useless". Why will we need artists, when AI Art is the way forward?

'schools should only teach STEM because those are real things that are useful when you get a job being creative and contributing to growing the economy, all that English and music crap can be faked up in ten minutes for an essay because there are no objective standards as in maths or physics".

Did you open with a single quote and close with a double quote to trigger me specifically?

Anyway, please let's not turn this into Wordcells vs. Shape Rotators, half of it seems to be friendly fire. As a proud STEMlord I have loads of respect for people who study history in order to preserve the beauty and wisdom of them past. On the other hand, half the post-modernist Brutalism-looks-good-actually people seem to come from the humanities. Surely we can get along, and unite against the Romans rather than the Judean People's Front?

Did you open with a single quote and close with a double quote to trigger me specifically?

Oh, I apologise! I am very stupid and can't remember how I started a sentence when I come round to finish it.

I absolutely don't want this to be Science Versus Humanities, Round 92. But there is a certain attitude that "well all this art and culture stuff is all very well, but it's not practical, is it? If you're rich and frivolous you can waste time on it, but us hard-headed productive types who are creative and contributing to the economy have better things to do, and really schools should be for practical ends" going about, where when funding is tight or time needs to be pared down off the school week, it's the arts and music and so on that get the chop.

I think that impoverishes people, and I very much resent the idea that Culture is something for our betters, that the common mass of the likes of us can't appreciate it any more than a gorilla could, and we should just get on with learning to be a good cog in the economic machine. Not everybody is going to love history or music or art or English or the rest of it, but somebody will, and maybe that somebody is a kid from a home where these things aren't in the picture at all, and the exposure at school is their first taste of it.

See the arguments about AI art. I think that there is a real danger of some people who produce art being replaced, but a lot of that is commercial work for commercial purposes (and could just as well, or even better, be produced by machine than people). That is going to affect people who are trying to make a living from producing such art, as well as all the people doing side-line commissions of fandom art etc.

But the same way that the camera did not replace art entirely, and photography has become an art itself, I think that AI art can also become another tool for artists.

So the argument "Well nobody needs to study art anymore, it'll all be done by AI in future" isn't a good one.

So the argument "Well nobody needs to study art anymore, it'll all be done by AI in future" isn't a good one.

I'll go a step further and say that if this was true, it would be even worse! If you press a button, and the computer reliably spits out a masterpiece that no human can hope to compete with, we'll just lose slowly lose the ability to express ourselves. It's a one-way ticket to Idiocracy.

Today, in our age of compulsory history courses, the kids love rap. What I would suggest as an alternative is introducing the inherently beautiful cultural artifacts and stories of history, and no trivia or random facts. Mozart is inherently beautiful regardless of any trivia about the composer and his origins. We should be teaching the beauties and greatnesses of history and fewer of the random tragedies that have no applicable moral lesson (eg Pompeii). Beauty can make someone’s life better, trivia can’t.

I love Mozart. I also know someone much more artistic than I am, much more knowledgeable about music, and who goes to operas and concerts, and who can't stand Mozart - their favourite composers are the Italian opera ones like Verdi 😀

"fewer of the random tragedies that have no applicable moral lesson (eg Pompeii)"

Luke 17:26-30

26 Just as it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of Man. 27 They were eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. 28 Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot—they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, 29 but on the day when Lot went out from Sodom, fire and sulfur rained from heaven and destroyed them all— 30 so will it be on the day when the Son of Man is revealed.

Whether it's a moral lesson or not, the story of Pompeii is how natural disasters strike, how people ignore or don't even recognise the warning signs, how we continue on with our ordinary lives as though we were immortal and nothing bad can happen, nothing that is not fixable because we are rich and powerful and the biggest cheese in our neck of the woods - then destruction comes on us in an instant, inescapable and irrevocable.

Could be that history classes are useless for the median student, but a country greatly benefits from its elites knowing a bit of history.

Medical students learn history of medicine. How we gradually arrived to the modern medicine, what mistakes were made and so on.

We don't learn from history and our mistakes though. Covid vaccine mandates was a mistake that has been repeated. However, we don't commit many other mistakes, so maybe knowledge of history is useful after all.

I think that history classes are "mostly useless" but not entirely useless. I think history can unify people behind a culture, but unfortunately narrative style history can reinforce ideologies without rigorous checking on hypotheses. For example, elites now history now but their history would be often be framed as a class struggle between oppressors and oppressed. There is a lot of truth to this, to be fair, but I think selective exclusion of examples might give overconfidence.

I think history can unify people behind a culture,

I was going to top-level-comment about this, but since you've raised it yourself I'll simply reply.

Here's the thing; if you think that this is both possible and good, then you should think history classes under the Blue Tribe are worse than useless, because they are not preaching a unifying culture but what conservatives occasionally call an "anti-culture" that is inherently divisive.

History, if well taught, would be one of the most useful academic disciplines to understand the happenstances and quirks of the present: social taboos, socio-economic systems, laws, present day wars – it doesn’t matter how nonsensical – can all be better understood through the contextualizing lens of the study of history. This forma mentis aided by the knowledge of History allows us to generalize this contextualizing attitude by using it not only to the past but to the present even: in particular, it can allow us to understand modern day propaganda: one doesn’t have to look further than the Ukrainian-Russian war to understand the importance of a foundation in historical thinking and knowledge: “Are Ukrainians the original Rus?”, “How do we determine if historical claims to a territory are justified?”, “How can historical truths be used as propaganda?” and so on…

One obvious criticism of the study of history is its reliance on “just-so” stories and the construction of not so convincing but so morally attractive for the modern audience narratives that make it seems like History is a matter of opinion and sentiment: I affirm that this is a criticism of, not history, but Academia in general: the post-modern, post-truth Academia to be exact. The solution it’s not less History but better historical education at every level of the educational system, which is guilty, of course, of stifling every interest one could have in History by reducing historical thinking and historical knowledge to parrot-like repetitions of the talking points of the textbook: memorization of relevant knowledge it’s of course important, but not only it’s not sufficient there are various way to memorize that engage the brain and curiosity better than “regurgitations”.

Teachers generally do not receive a good historical education and then they go on teaching the same way they were taught, keeping the cycle closed – another interesting historical concept: its cyclical nature – making History the worst taught subject in school after Math (not that the other subjects were taught any better, one need to rely on autodidacticism to gain something from school).

From Cicero:

Historia vero testis temporum, lux veritatis, vita memoriae, magistra vitae, nuntia vetustatis.

"History, in truth, is the Witness of Times, the Light of Truth, the Life of Memory, the Teacher of Life, the Messenger of Antiquity”: History is inspiration to act through the examples of our Ancestors, it’s the preserving through remembering what is good in tradition, it’s a warning to the danger of forgetting, it’s vindication against falsehood.

Let’s not forget History, let’s study it better, let’s remember.

Make a better argument to convince me that "Things that happened twenty years ago when I was still playing with dolls are of no moment to what is going on now, when I want to know how come I'm not getting all I want".

Lack of historical context is getting people into a lot of trouble. Or do you believe that "picnic" is a slur word because it refers to lynching parties? Without any sense of what is or is not in tune with a certain period, any demagogue can whip the public up about "this bad thing happened and you should riot in the streets!"

The teaching of history in schools may be poor. The attitude of students may be poor (like yours, where it's "why do I have to learn this boring stuff that has no practical use in my life?"). But without history, we're still stumbling around making the same stupid mistakes over and over, and being taken for a ride by interested parties who present their version of 'trufax' to us.

Ideologically motivate curriculum creators can also make narratives. I did not learn that picnic is a slur, but if that was a popular opinion, it wouldn't be surprising to see this belief inserted into education.

Those interested parties can gain control over what is taught. If you want to defend the idea that we should teach history in a non-ideological and rigorous way so as to prevent manipulation by politicians, then yes. That's a great idea. But I still accept the viewpoint that history classes as they stand today in USA, are mostly useless.