The impact of postmodernism on the study of history is that it has made history a matter of personal interpretation. The result of neglecting history is that we have lost a sense of our identity and discernment. Christians should take history serious because of the nature of Scripture and the involvement of the church.

Source: Faith in Focus, 2007. 5 pages.

Why Bother with History?

I am a history teacher. That is to say, I’ve taught history in all sorts of places over the last 30 years. It’s work I love, and hopefully some of my students have become as enthusiastic as I am. History is a fascinating study. It’s all about people. And yet the most amazing thing is that when I ask people if they’ve ever studied history the very few who have say, ‘Oh, it was so boring – all those dates...’

What on earth is happening out there? It’s incredible! How in the world have people got such an impression of this wonderful subject? I have yet to meet the history teacher who teaches in a way that would even remotely resemble the memories of these apparently bored high school stu­dents. So what, then, is the problem with history, and why are so few people studying it these days? Could the reason be that history is simply unimportant or irrelevant? Are there any important consequences in New Zealanders not learning it? Are there any special reasons Christians should study it? I’ve thought about these questions quite a lot over the past twenty years or so, and what follows are some of the thoughts I’ve had as I’ve tried to answer them.

The Present Situation🔗

First of all, what are the facts? Do we as a nation study history? Apparently, a few of us do. With our current system of unit standards in the NCEA regime, it is a little hard to deduce what proportion of students in each year of senior high school take the different subjects; but a rounding of figures over the past 2-3 years results in the following approximations: around 1 in 6 students doing NCEA Level One take history, one in 10 of Level Two did his­tory, and one in 8 of Level Three did the subject.1 This, you would have to agree, is not a large portion of our high school population. And bear in mind that the large segment of our population who never take history between the ages of 15-17 never did it before, either. Social Studies (intro­duced in the 1940s to replace history and geography in Forms 1-4) has always been more a series of unrelated topics in the study of culture than a connected subject providing students with an overview of where western culture has come from, and what their particular place in it is. In other words, it does not teach them history.

Well, if the average student does not take it, and if the average parent (now probably in his or her 40s) does not en­courage their offspring to study it, what are the reasons? Over the years, I have asked many questions and tried to probe this problem. It seems to me there are several. Firstly we live in an age when technical expertise is valued more highly than an ability to understand what is going on in our culture, and learning to think critically, analytically and reflectively. This results in a thirst for a high school education that will provide students with practical skills that (as students and parents perceive it) will enable school leavers to get a good job and make money. This attitude was alluded to by my 15-year-old nephew, Robert, when I asked him if he had thought of taking history for NCEA Level One. He replied, ‘Yes – history is interesting, and I wouldn’t have minded doing it, but it was in the same subject group as art, and I wanted to do that. I suppose most people in my year would say history would be interesting, but it’s not as good for getting you a job as, say, computers.’ That, in a nutshell, is the problem. Given the choice, students and parents will often opt for what seems to be the subject most obviously related to the practical problems of the workplace. That, after all, is the way we have been all trained think for the last 70-odd years by the disciples of John Dewey, the great promoter of ‘education for life for the ordinary student.’

There is Little Choice🔗

But Robert’s answer to my question also points to a second reason students do not take subjects like history: there is too little choice at high school. This is not because there are too few subject options offered for NCEA, but because New Zealand students are only allowed to do around six at a time. So, subjects are arranged in groups and you get to choose one per group. Then, by the time you enroll for English, Mathemat­ics and Science (compulsory at Level One) you only have two or three more choices. Furthermore, the spreading of students over the many subjects often means that there are too few students to offer a class in a particular subject. The result is that subjects like history and languages are sometimes not offered at all in smaller high schools. My niece, Susannah, who is 17 years old, made the following comment: ‘I personally think we ought to be able to take a lot more subjects, not just 5 or 6. In Europe they have to do 10 or 12, so you have a lot more choice. In the U.S. (she was there 18 months ago and attended high school with a friend) they all have to do European History and American History, and I think that’s much better.’

Susannah went on to add that science teachers and career advisors often put pressure on students to keep up the three sciences, since if they end up wanting to do science at university they will find it hard to pick them up without the previous background at high school. No doubt this is true: the sciences use terminology and concepts that are peculiar to themselves and you cannot readily learn them without di­rect instruction, from the basic steps upward. A subject like history, by contrast, does not use technical vocabulary and one simply needs an enquiring mind and the willingness to read widely. Students assume – and probably rightly – that if they love history and want to pick it up later at university, they can. But how many do?

It Takes Effort🔗

Finally, there are the perceived problems of difficulty – and effort. Most people I talk to think all that learning of dates is not only boring, but hard work! (You’d have to be dotty about history to put up with it!) But even given that memorizing dates is not a major part of studying the subject, it is true that you will have to be prepared to read a lot – and the more widely you read, the better you will succeed in history. However, that in turn is one of the bless­ings of being a history student. You will become a very well-informed person who understands human nature and our times because you have read so much about them. But you will also have to write es­says. That, it seems, is enough to make many students shudder. This is partly due to what has not gone on in the earlier years of schooling: pupils do not study the formalities of language or learn how to write cogently and effectively. And because they are not required to read a lot of good literature, they do not learn what good writing that articulates a clear argument effectively actually looks like. They do not learn how to write good essays themselves. What a shame! In consequence, they look for easier options. Here is what Susannah said: ‘History is perceived as being quite difficult – don’t take it if you want an easy option – instead take information management or tourism studies – they are called ‘cabbage subjects.’ But somehow I despair of a society that has been brought up on a cabbage diet rather than solid food.

The Influence of Post-modernism🔗

On a slight tangent, I should add that recent post-modern thinking has added to the dilemma. In a world that regards all attempts to explain the past as merely personal interpretations whose perspec­tive depends entirely on the ideology of the interpreter, a dark skepticism about the possibility of knowing the past truly and objectively at all throws great doubt on the relevance of the subject. If history is only a vehicle for someone’s personal axe-grinding, why should I learn it unless I want to become part of this particular agenda? And I can see that history is being used this way in the curriculum. It used to be argued that the old ‘survey’ method of teaching history simply reflected the ideol­ogy of democracy – the history of western civilization was taught, in other words, to show the rise of democracy, and what a good thing it was. However, at least it was still a survey of where we have come from. What we have now is a curriculum that offers topics related only by themes such as ‘Conflict’ or ‘Race Relations.’ The point is not what a student actually learns about the modern United States or South Africa (for instance), but what fuels the hatred of racial discrimination. Analysing and locating that hatred is the driver in studying history for those who want to keep looking for it in today’s world. It is not to teach students how the continuity of the past fits together at all. Past situations are only relevant if they illustrate some situation in the present, as we understand it. No wonder people begin to wonder if history is relevant at all.

What has Made Us What We are🔗

If these are the reasons for the decline of history, what are its effects? The first and most obvious effect is that more and more we are becoming a society that does not know who we are because we have very little understanding of the developments that have made us what we are. That miss­ing knowledge is extremely useful! I could use countless examples to make a case for this; but consider how important it is to know the trends in thinking that led to doubt in the authority of Scripture in the nineteenth century, and to the adoption of an atheistic, evolutionary view of the origin of man. Couple this with a huge growth in optimism about human nature, and in the possibilities of technology to solve the problems of human life. The result: rejection of God and the Scriptures in the twentieth century, a Nazi holocaust, and the sexual rebellion of the 1960s and beyond. A broad-brush overview of the past two or three centuries of European thinking helps us make sense of the moral and spiritual chaos we now face. When we are able to recognise the trends that have led to our chaos we are much better able to under­stand it, address it and speak with those caught up in it. We become better apolo­gists, evangelists and more responsible, compassionate Christians.

A sound training in the major trends in the history of Europe, Britain and the West has generally helped make the difference between a usefully educated person and one who has little idea of what makes our world ‘tick.’ Consider some of the twentieth century’s leading statesmen. Have you ever read Winston Churchill’s speeches and real­ized the extent to which his knowledge of history gave power to his arguments? He was an amateur historian, and although he had not put much effort into his studies at school, his education had been very sound. He certainly put it to good use in sketching verbal pictures of all that England stood for as he urged the British people to stand firm, against all odds, in their great hour of peril in 1940. His speeches had power because he knew the past, and he knew what must be preserved. He was conscious that England had faced threats from the Continent before. This knowledge steeled his conviction that Germany was again becoming a menace in the early 1930s. No one believed him, and most thought him a foolish war-monger. It was his knowledge of history that enabled him to keep his convictions in the face of gen­eral ridicule. But Churchill is not the only historically-aware Prime Minister Britain has had. My sister Jane remembers a televi­sion interview in which Paul Holmes was attempting to reduce Margaret Thatcher to either anger or tears (he probably didn’t care much which it was) over her recent dumping by the Conservative Party. Thatcher quickly pulverized Holmes, using historical example and sound argument to show that her Prime Ministership had not been based merely on her own ego. She actually stood for something worth defend­ing; and did it well. His emotional cheap shots missed the mark. Consider for a moment. What better source may we draw from when we want to make a point about our social, political or moral situation? What knowledge better prepares us for sensible conversation, discussion, debate and wise action than an understanding of what our society has been before?

Not Knowing Oppresses Us🔗

A second consequence is that people who don’t know the past are much more easily controlled by unscrupulous leaders, or by those who have an evil agenda. People who have studied history have an aware­ness of how tyranny develops over time; what forces in society tempt individuals to grab for power and bring others to a point where they give up their freedoms, submitting to tyranny. The historically-aware are usually the quickest to discern these developments, and among the first to sound the warnings (again, Churchill in the early ‘30s). Sometimes, when I think about the historical ignorance of our own society, I fear for its future.

People who know the past also know a lot more about the human heart, and its potential for good and for evil. They are aware of the range of outworkings! Thus they tend not to be fooled by promises based on false optimism. They know, for instance, that science will not solve all our problems. The use of technology is entirely dependent on the ethics and the state of the hearts of those responsible for its development. The same technology may gener­ate power, or blow up cities. It may prevent disease or be used to start a pandemic. After all, it was a modern, efficient, industrialised and seemingly Christian society that ran the gas chambers of Auschwitz. (You might ask why the Lutheran churches in Germany failed to work out what was happening and stand up against Nazism. Well, these churches had fallen prey to an inward-looking, sentimental type of Christianity known as Pietism, and by the early twentieth century they were not very interested in wider developments in society. Apart from a few brave individuals, they succumbed to the Nazi programme to use the churches to promote their aims.) Frightening, isn’t it?

Arrogance about the Present🔗

Another feature of people who don’t know the past is that they generally have an ill-founded arrogance about the present. Because they are quite unaware of the high points reached at earlier moments of our history (usually those moments when the gospel was having its greatest effect) they tend to believe things are about as good as they can get. This may especially apply to Christians who don’t know the past – it’s amazing what silly things I’ve heard contemporary Christians say about modern church life! You would think, from listening to them, that the Church has never really known before how to make Christianity clear to unbelievers. (Evange­lism has actually been done a lot better many times in the past.) Likewise, due to some good convictions faithfully carried out, the influence of the Scriptures has at other times penetrated far more deeply into various cultures than it does into ours today. Did you know, for instance, that our current literacy levels are appalling when compared to 17th century New England (which were about 100%). And why was that? The Congregational churches of New England were convinced that everyone needed to read and write so that they could study the Scriptures for themselves. Thus their society was highly literate, biblically knowledgeable, and God-fearing. Did you know that at different times our culture has experienced more honest politicians, more faithful churches and higher levels of morality? Wouldn’t it be useful to know about them? I find that Christians who know the past are more likely to pray, and to work, for greater faithfulness – in their own lives and in the world in which they live and move. They are not complacent.

The Value for the Christian🔗

 Clearly, I’m convinced that a lack of historical understand­ing is bad for any society! But is there a reason that Christians, in particular, should be familiar with the past? Yes, I believe there is. Several reasons, in fact. First of all, the Bible is a historical book. It contains a great deal of history; and it teaches a particular view of history. It is incumbent upon us to know what it teaches about history. The Bible teaches that God is the Creator, in control of all history – He began and will end it, and He has all its developments in his hands. He has determined the times and places that we shall live in (forget dreaming about being Jane Austen!). He sent His Son into this world to live, die and rise again in history. Christ is the focal point of all history; and Christianity is the supremely historical religion. We need to think of our faith historically, and take heart from the fact that God is work­ing all things out, in time, for His good purposes.

The Scriptures also teach us that faithfulness to God will have good consequences, over time. Our lives, and our whole society’s (should many live righteously), will bear good fruit for him if we remain faithful. Conversely, sin has both individual and social consequences – negative ones. For instance, think of a society such as 18th century England, and what happened there as a result of the Methodist revival. The poorest people, those living the messiest lives, were con­verted and suddenly they started being honest, hard-working and thrifty. England changed as a consequence. Many of these people, their lives transformed, became middle-class, so much so that by the be­ginning of the 19th century, the Methodists were chiding themselves for losing touch with their roots among the poor. Yes, the Bible does encourage us to think in terms what we can learn from history: it is full of such lessons in the history it tells. Our usefulness as Christians will be enhanced if we heed these warnings and continue to apply them.

The Command in Scripture🔗

One further lesson – and an important one – is that Scripture always commends the teaching of the past to the next generation. Why? That they may know the glorious deeds of the Lord. This is the message of Psalm 78; and while it applies particularly to the record of God’s great actions in Scripture (especially the Exodus), the les­son may also be applied to the lives of the great heroes of the faith. This is the intent of Hebrews 11. Those who have gone before us in faith encourage us, and we do well to study their lives. Likewise, and even though we do not have an inspired interpretation of their faithful deeds, we may study the Christians of post-biblical history with profit. Think of great men of faith like the Christian politician, William Wilberforce, or his friend the writer, Han­nah More. Their faith will inspire our own. Study their history!

The Lessons in Church History🔗

Another important reason that Christians need to know more of history is to gain a better appreciation for the role of the Church. God’s people should know much more about their history than they do. In fact, I’m sure that part of the reason we have such a weak view of the Church today is that we simply don’t know enough about the role the Church has played in history, and the ways in which it has influenced society. A good survey course in the his­tory of Western Europe and Britain would overflow with good examples. What a pity so few adults today have enjoyed the benefits of this! Such a survey would also remind us that what Jesus promised Peter in Matthew 16:18 is true – the gates of hell will never prevail against the Church. It will never be destroyed by the evil one in this world. History has borne this out. In fact, history has also proved that Acts 1:8 is true: the Church has gone on and on, taking the gospel further and further until the ends of the earth (you could put New Zealand somewhere near this point!) have been reached.

Are you a student? Are you a parent? Do you want to be a well-informed and useful servant of God in today’s world? Let me plead with you to study the past. Is history worth the effort? Yes, in every way!


  1. ^ Information supplied by the New Zealand History Teachers’ Association

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