Skip to main content

Every Day is History Day

Jim Leach, Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities

Russell Senate Office Building Washington, D.C.
United States

April 26, 2012


Your wondrous president, Cathy Gorn, asked me to explain why History Day was chosen by the President this Spring to receive a National Humanities Medal.  The answer relates to the anomaly that History Day is a “misnomer.”  Unlike traditional commemorative days for which Congress and the Executive Branch proffer formal proclamations, History Day is a program rather than celebratory moment.  The organization’s mission is analogous to the educational endeavors of a small college.  History Day’s decentralized tentacles reach out to high schools and home schools across the land.  Every year hundreds of thousands of students are incentivized to do research, many for the first time, on historical themes. History Day projects are crafted to enliven the imagination, offer perspective, and provide methodological lessons applicable to future life endeavors.   

History Day programs awaken us from historical slumber. In a world characterized by accelerating change, there is no better way to get a sense for time, place and the human experience than to study history.   

Studying history is especially important in this country at this time because of our unique role in the world and because academic testing tells us that Americans have more limited historical knowledge than virtually any other advanced society.  In this circumstance we must ask ourselves:

How do we understand our own country and people, our place and our values, if we don’t study American history?   And how do we come to understand how others think and apply logic to challenges of the moment if we don’t have a sense for the world? 

At our best we Americans reason pragmatically while many peoples reason more historically.  When presented a judgmental quandary involving public policy or personal action, many on the planet first think of how other people in other times addressed analogous challenges.  They rely on social experience as the principal guide to current action. 

Perhaps because we have a propensity to be future oriented, Americans, on the other hand, tend to stress the pragmatic.  We make “on the one hand” and “on the other” kinds of calculations unrelated to experiential considerations before reaching a judgment.  Both the historical and pragmatic approach to decision making have merit, with perhaps the most effective method involving a combination.  Nevertheless, it is important to recognize as we deal with others that they and their families may not only have different historical experiences but they may reason differently as individuals.  

Mutual understanding requires both a sense of self and of the other.                                          

A smart person, we are frequently told, learns from his own mistakes.  Of greater relevance, perhaps, is a corollary: A really smart person learns from the mistakes of others.  Whether it be family issues – drug usage, for instance -- or public policy – such as, if and how to use force -- a careful attention to mistakes of the near present and distant past can provide guideposts for thoughtful decision making.  That is why every society has a sage who suggests that failure to study history is an invitation to repeat mistakes of the past. 

To look presciently forward we need to look carefully back.

Every circumstance is, of course, different than any that came before.  We don’t ever walk in exactly the same way in the same physical or social environment.  People and situations change.  Hence it is important to think imaginatively as well as pragmatically and historically.  There are many ways to stimulate the imagination, from reading literature to studying and making art to reviewing history.  All combine but it is history that is most often the lynchpin that ties other studies together.  It is history that most effectively allows us to put on the shoes of others in past ages and different circumstances. 

And it is research that teaches us to be cautious of assuming we can foretell where probing the unknown will lead.  We never know exactly what we might uncover.  Two examples, one from science, one from the humanities, come to mind.  Years ago as a Congressman I remember hearing colleagues grouse in the cloak room off the House floor about scientific research that involved studying irrelevant subjects like butterfly wings.  What, it was asserted, could be less relevant?  But upon leaving Congress, I became a professor at Princeton and one day was introduced to the scientist who studied butterfly wings.  Based on profound intuition and scholarly observations of the butterfly, he was, I learned, awarded a Nobel Prize. It ended up that an enzyme he discovered in butterfly wings had unique properties, allowing it, among other things, to be the principal ingredient of chemotherapy. 

In an analogous vein, a humanist at Georgetown received a series of seemingly esoteric grants in linguistics from the humanities agency I am privileged to lead.  The humanist explored word usage differences and found that perceptive observations could be made about the thought processes of men contrasted with women.  Her research led to books that became New York Times best sellers and, in turn, were translated into over 30 languages.  Understanding the human condition demands an understanding of gender differences.  That gender differences existed was no surprise; that linguistics could be the laboratory to examine these differences was.

St. Paul once suggested that we all look through a glass darkly.  He was referencing the need to be cautious in interpreting Scripture.  A similar lack of certitude should be applied to history.  There can be certitude about certain historical facts but the whys and wherefores of events can be elusive.  It is no accident that history is often more controversial than current events.  But the deeper our understanding of the past, the greater assistance we are given to coping with the present and molding the future. 

Life of society and the individual is a continuum.  History may be the story of the past but it is never dead.  It continues to shape who we are and how we think.  Every day is History Day.