Future-focused history is the commonsense idea that knowledge of past historical experience can inform future judgment in the realm of human affairs. It is based on two obvious realities:
a. History is the intellectual discipline that describes past events in the realm of human affairs.
b. Past experience is the primary indicator of future outcomes.
This is a basic tenet of Bayes’ theorem of statistical probability, perhaps the best-accepted theorem in the field of statistics.* Throughout our lives, and on a daily basis, we humans routinely rely on past experience to inform future judgments that direct our subsequent decisions and actions. We reach for a hammer instead of a wrench to drive a nail because this choice has produced favorable outcomes in the past. Similarly, history can supply useful information about what has worked and not worked in the vitally important realm of human affairs.
Extending Future-Focused History to Education. Future-Focused History education is based on two additional realities:
a. Formal education (schooling) exists to impart important knowledge of the world that can help students and society to function effectively in the future.
b. School subjects impart such knowledge by identifying general principles of how the world works derived from their subject matter—principles that can be applied in the future, such as addition and subtraction in mathematics, grammar and punctuation in language, and photosynthesis and gravity in science. General principles of knowledge offer the most practical and the most powerful means to learn from past experience. It might be said that disciplines of all kinds, from medicine to fly-fishing to small engine repair, exist for the express purpose of identifying, systematizing, and imparting their general principles of knowledge.
– History education can fulfill the purpose of education as other school subjects do only by imparting general principles of knowledge derived from its subject matter, principles that can be usefully applied in the future.
– History has been supplying humans with useful principles of knowledge for well over two millennia, since the time of Thucydides in Greece and Sun Tzu in China.* The idea that history—like other disciplines—possesses general principles of knowledge was reaffirmed during the Renaissance by such eminent thinkers as Niccolò Machiavelli and David Hume.* Respected contemporary thinkers continue to identify principles of historical knowledge and the recurring patterns upon which they are based. (See “Future-Focused History is alive outside history class.”)
– Nonetheless, general principles of historical knowledge are missing from the official curriculum taught to students in our schools and colleges.*
– Unlike professionals in other intellectual domains—who dedicate their careers to uncovering general principles derived from their fields’ subject matter—historians concentrate on describing events of the past rather than identifying principles useful in the future.
– The agenda of history education has traditionally been set by academic historians, an agenda that does not include general principles of history.
Why might academic historians prefer not to acknowledge principles of historical knowledge?
– To acknowledge the existence of such principles would be to admit that historical learning presently lacks the fundamental component of other intellectual disciplines—the component that makes these disciplines useful in life.
– To acknowledge such principles could be seen to imply that academic historians have been remiss, if not negligent, in overlooking general principles of history up to now.
– To acknowledge such principles would be to recognize that an essential aspect of historical knowledge lies beyond the scope of academic historians, which could throw into question their privileged role in directing the nature of history education.
– History teachers are left to teach about one-time events from the past, most of which have little or no relevance to the future.
– History education fails to effectively fulfill the fundamental purpose of education.
– History is in decline in the nation’s schools and colleges.*
– Students and society may learn about history, but they seldom learn from history, so the cycle of historical ignorance perpetuates indefinitely.
A reasonable response: If academic historians wish to confine their efforts to describing events of the past, that’s their business. Then the task of identifying general principles of historical knowledge falls to history teachers who bear the professional responsibility to impart important knowledge of the world that can help students and society to function effectively in the future. That’s their business.
Under existing conditions, history education may be unable to survive and thrive over the longer term—unless history teachers take charge of history schooling and supply historical learning that is relevant to the future.
. . .
- More about general principles of historical knowledge
- Future-Focused History is alive outside history class
- Sympathy for the historian
- Can we stop the decline of history education?
*Factual evidence for the starred statements in the above article is provided in the book Future-Focused History Teaching: Restoring the Power of Historical Learning by Mike Maxwell.