Exploring Ancient World Cultures
General Essays

The Educational Value of the Study of History

Moses Coit Tyler

This essay originally appeared as the Preface to The World's History Illuminated by Israel Smith Clare, an eight volume series published by Western Newspaper Syndicate in 1897. For a response, see A Response to Tyler 100 Years Late, by Bill Hemminger.

In order to do justice to the claims of historical study, it can never be necessary for us to depreciate those of any other branch of learning. Properly considered, there is no such thing as rivalry between different spheres of knowledge; only emulation, a noble and helpful emulation. All real knowledge is good, being in one way or another a source of power and happiness. The various realms of things known or knowable are but co-equal and fraternal states in that vast confederation which we may call the republic of science. No single member of this confederation is strong, none is sufficient, standing alone. Each is necessary to all, all are necessary to each.

While, therefore, no one study may assert for itself the whole of what is valuable, every study doubtless has its own special value; and this value, as in the case of a study like history, it may sometimes be worth our while to place clearly before our minds, modestly, tolerantly, and for the rightful purpose of forming a just idea of the particular good we ought to expect and to work for, in our pursuit of it.


Probably that use of the study of history which will first occur to most persons, is the one suggested by the common conception of history as an enormous body of facts about the past, -- the effort to know and retain a considerable number of these facts being regarded as a fine gymnastic exercise for the faculty of memory. It is, indeed, quite astonishing how great a multitude of historical details -- dates, names, and other precise items about persons, cities, nations, armies, political parties, institutions, and so forth -- almost any person is capable of carrying in his memory, if only he patiently stores and trains it in that way. Moreover, no one will deny that there is much convenience and delight in the possession of a memory like that, -- a memory enriched with precise and various historical facts, all labeled, and pigeon-holed, and ready for service at a moment's call. Certainly, a brilliant accomplishment this for conversation; a weapon of victory for public speech; in hours of loneliness and suffering, a great solace, -- all of which may be seen in the cases of certain famous men in our country who had such a memory, as John Quincy Adams, Theodore Parker, Charles Sumner, Garfield.

On the other hand, this particular use of historical study is somewhat discredited among persons of mature sense, whenever it is associated with either of two practical mistakes, to which, indeed, young students of history are liable. One of these mistakes arises from a lack of discrimination as to the relative value of different historical facts; the other from the notion that the work of memorizing historical facts is the principal part of historical study. It can hardly be wise to make the memory serve the purpose of an old fashioned garret in a country house, -- a receptacle for all sorts of odds and ends of property, precious and worthless. Surely, such indiscriminate memorizing must be a waste of energy, and the perversion of a noble faculty. What is the use of making an effort to remember what is useless? Besides, however valuable it may be to store the memory with well selected dates and names and other historical items, this at best belongs among the lower and more mechanic uses of history.

With these qualifications upon the primary claim put forward on behalf of historical study, we may now pass on to consider some claims which point to mental and even spiritual discipline of a far higher and more complex kind.


One of these higher benefits may be described as that of training the critical faculty, through the effort to test the evidence for and against particular historical facts, or what are alleged to be such. Perhaps the very hardest thing to get at in this world is the truth, the very truth, especially the very truth concerning the past transactions of the human race. From this point of view, it is plain that the study of history is something more than the passive reading of certain finished and fascinating books, like Livy, for instance, or Gibbon, or Thiers, or Macaulay, or Prescott, or Parkman; it is indeed, the resolute and attentive application of the whole mind to an immense and complicated subject, -- a process which cannot be carried on very long without our running up against questions of disputed fact. To deal with these questions in a manner to satisfy a truth-loving mind, it will be necessary for us to look keenly into problems of conflicting testimony, of personal character, of the validity of documents, of the meaning of words, of the right method of construction. I am not now speaking of the labors of professional historians, the intricacy and arduousness of which are admitted to be great, just in proportion to the quality of their results. Even pupils at school, however, and college students, and the members of historical clubs, and solitary readers of history, if they would pursue this study in the wisest and most fruitful way, must all be, to some extent, historical critics; must be alert, inquisitive, cautious, never credulous, always intolerant of slovenly ways; and as far as possible, they must try the text they are reading by earlier texts, and especially by those nearest to the times that happen to be under consideration.

Who is likely to overstate the educational value of such a method of study? On the moral side, how great it must be! It is produced and is nourished by a conviction of the incomparable worth and sacredness of mere truth in itself, as against all baser stuff in the form of half-truth, guess work, fables, or lies, and this conviction is sure to grow and to strengthen under such honest toil in its service. On the purely mental side, how great must be the effect of such study, -- since it calls forth and taxes powers so important as those of analysis and comparison, nicety of verbal sense, literary insight, logical acuteness and precision, soundness of judgment, and saving common sense.


In the next place, it should not be overlooked that the mental and moral discipline involved in the study of history, is of a kind even broader and more complex than that required for the ascertainment and verification of particular historical facts. That alone, as we have just seen, is a great task, calling for fine and strong powers of mind; it is a task that can perhaps never be perfectly done by any finite being; and yet, even that, when it is done as well as we can do it, is not the end of historical study, but rather the beginning of it. For, after you have verified and defined your facts, comes the still more subtle process of discovering their causal relations, -- the great play of influence among human events, the interdependence of events, the action and reaction and counteraction of events. Of course, to do this sort of work hastily, recklessly, with that tone of easy infallibility which some historical students have when passing judgment upon groups of facts in relation to the past, is probably not very hard, -- at least for persons who can do it all; but to one who realizes the worthlessness, the misleading character, of all mere assumption in statements professing to be historical, and how hard it must be even approximately to discover the actual relations of events, it will be obvious that, aside from the intrinsic value of such generalizations, is the disciplinary value of the mental and spiritual process of arriving at them. Certainly, to generalize wisely from sound historical data, is a great exercise of the philosophic powers; it is a test and a development of broad-mindedness, lucidity, and vigor in reasoning.


Another benefit from historical study will occur to us, when we reflect that such study compels one to investigate and to reason within the realm, not of the exact and of the absolute, but of the approximate and the probable.

No doubt there is a peculiar educational value in the study of those sciences in which the data are precise or absolute; in which the conclusions are so, likewise. History, however, deals with data of a different kind, -- with mixed deeds, and mixed motives, and traits of character, and experiences of human beings; looking back into the past, it draws some general conclusions from these data and applies them to the present and the future; it aims to formulate some general principles relating to the collective human life of this world, to government, to the working of the social organism. But whatever history requires of its student or does for him, it keeps him mostly within the sphere of the approximate and the probable. You cannot weigh a human motive or impulse as precisely as you can a chemical substance. In much of your work as an historian, you have to balance one probability against another; to estimate the operation of spiritual forces, to deal with the inscrutable mysteries of personal character. In so many parts of your work, you are obliged to reason with caution, slowly, circumspectly, not dogmatically; and to realize the limitations upon the definiteness and certainty of many of your conclusions.

Well, is there any special value in such training as this? It seems to me that, in a rather peculiar sense, this gives the very training required for real life; since in real life we are in the sphere not of the absolute, but of the relative, and we have to deal with the very problems which the historian has to deal with, -- human character, human feelings and motives, probabilities, and other data more or less indefinite. I would say no word to imply any disparagement of the educational value of mathematics, for example. It has its value, unrivaled in its kind; but he who should apply the methods of mathematical reasoning to the questions which come up between man and man in real life, would often make most absurd mistakes and go far astray. Historical study, on the other hand, is a study of human nature on a broad field, and for all ages; it is exactly the sort of training which helps us to know persons and affairs in real life, the great types of human character, the limited worth of testimony, the play of passion in interfering with reasonable and prudent conduct, the probable consequences of any particular set of outward conditions. History is the great teacher of human nature by means of object lessons drawn from the whole recorded life of human nature.


This brings us naturally to the fifth benefit to be got from historical study, -- the cultivation of fair-mindedness as a habit, and the suppression of intellectual partisanship with respect to all subjects whatsoever.

No one can pursue this study in the right way, or with any real success, who does not learn to acquire the mental attitude, not of an attorney standing for one side of the question, but of a judge standing for what is true on both sides. The historical spirit is the judicial spirit. However vast may be his learning, however splendid his style, whoever writes history in a partisan fashion, spoils to that extent the genuineness and value of his work, as any one may observe by the brilliant examples of Macaulay and Froude.

We must not, we cannot, tolerate in history, what we are obliged to tolerate in contemporary comment. Such comment is almost inevitably colored by contemporary passion, is biased this way and that through contemporary prejudice, through the stormy likes and dislikes that are irrepressible among men actually engaged in the conflicts of their own time, and having great personal interests at stake. But when it comes to history, we demand something different. History is the comment made afterward, when the fight is over and ended and the combatants are cold in their graves; and the duty of history is to hear all sides and all persons, to weigh all pleas, to sift all testimonies, to be fair to all. If, with regard to living controversies, this attitude of fairness between opposite persons and opinions is almost impossible to attain, it is by no means easy of attainment even with regard to dead controversies; it is, for every topic in history, one of the last and choicest results of spiritual discipline.

I do not know any other study more likely than the study of history, to help us to acquire intellectual poise, justice in thought and word, freedom from the warp of undue sympathy or antipathy, the judicial habit. And this, after all, is a quality of great influence and esteem in this world, overridden, as it is, with partisanship of all sorts, and yet conscious that there is a mental attitude nobler and wiser.

VI For the sixth benefit to be got from historical study, I would call attention to its incomparable use in enlarging one's mental horizon.

He who does not know history must have a very limited mental horizon -- a horizon as wide only as the time during which he has lived. The whole vast realm of the past is to him as if it never had been: he knows only what has been done and enjoyed and suffered by the human family since he arrived here. Even in the case of the oldest man, what is that by comparison with all the years, decades, centuries, epochs, which have rolled over this planet before the sound of his footstep was heard upon it, and which have been crowded with stupendous transactions that he is totally ignorant of except by some sort of hearsay, by broken fragments of knowledge picked up from casual tradition?

The man who knows only the time immediately around him, is in a mental condition somewhat like that of the man who knows only the place immediately around him -- the man who has never traveled, who knows nothing of other neighborhoods and other peoples. Such a man must have a very false notion of himself and others; his mind can hardly fail to be full of local prejudice and conceit; he lacks the necessary standards by which to estimate his own size and quality and that of the men and things around him. Such a man is necessarily provincial, parochial; his intellect is the intellect of a villager. So, the man who knows but little of human time, except what has elapsed since his own birth, is provincial-minded with respect to vast tracts of human experience; his mental horizon is necessarily limited to the petty circle of time which surrounds his own life in the world. To such a man history comes with its power to enlarge his own horizon by annexing to it the horizons of all the generations before him. History is for time, what travel is for space; it is an intellectual journey across oceans and continents of duration, and of ages both remote from our own and vitalized and enriched by stupendous events. There is an old aphorism to the effect that, "ignorance of what has been done in the world before he came into it, leaves a man always a child." This, perhaps, is but a far-away echo of the saying of the Chinese moralist, Lao-Tse: "Man is an infant born at midnight, who, when he sees the sun rise, thinks that yesterday has never existed." To him who has not studiously opened those books which tell of the world's yesterday, it is as though the world had never had a yesterday -- as though the world had begun only when he began.

There have been many attempts to define the essential difference between man and the other animals known to us here. What is to be thought of this definition? Man is the history-knowing animal -- the only animal that can know the past. Therefore, our conscious and cultivated relation to the past, through historical study, develops in us as human beings that very attribute which distinguishes us from those animals that are called the brutes.


Perhaps, the most impressive consideration touching the benefit to be derived from historical study, is the one which still remains to be mentioned: history enables each generation of men to profit, if they will, by the experience of their predecessors, -- especially to avoid their costliest and most painful mistakes. Without history, nearly all the practical wisdom of mankind, gained through innumerable blunders and mishaps, would be lost, and the same blunders and the same mishaps would have to be repeated and to be suffered over and over again on the part of successive generations ignorant of what had happened before.

Let us suppose that the human family should now agree that history is an undesirable branch of knowledge; that it should no longer be cultivated or taught; that all the books of history which have been written, from Herodotus down to Ranke and Stubbs and George Bancroft, should be burned up, and that no more should be written; that even the documentary sources of history should be destroyed. What would be the effect of this gigantic piece of Vandalism? Of course, before many years, the men who now know something of the past would be dead, and would have left no successors to their knowledge; and, gradually, nearly all remembrance of former times and of the men and the deeds and the sufferings of former times, of their mistakes and triumphs and failures, would be blotted out. Nearly all the lessons taught by the experience of the human family would be forgotten. Consequently, to a large extent, progress would cease; each generation, knowing but little of what men had learned before themselves, would have to begin nearly all experiments over again; and each generation would be liable to keep on repeating the errors of its predecessors, treading over again the same round of blundering attempts and disastrous failures. Life itself, or what is called civilization, would still be a laborious march, but it would be a march in a treadmill, wherein the feet seem to move, and steps seem to be taken, but no advance is made.

Whenever one is inclined to rate very low the utility of historical study, it may be well for him to recall the fact that all human progress depends on each generation starting with the advantage of the wisdom gained and accumulated by all previous experience, and that history is the temple in which the records of this experience are stored. Burn down the temple, and you thereby destroy some of the things that are essential to further progress.

People who do not know history, are apt to be presumptuous and rash in their political methods. They go on advocating errors that were exploded ages ago; trying political or industrial or financial experiments that have been tried and found futile and disastrous times without number; taking false steps which their ancestors had taken before them and had found to be steps toward folly and misery; making civilization itself to seem no longer a stream of onward progress, but a mere whirlpool, its currents spinning with men and institutions round and round in a fierce motion, until at last they all go down together into some central gulf of darkness.

One of the greatest and most inspiring teachers of history known among us during the past forty years has for his book-plate this motto: "Discipulus est prioris posterior dies." "To-day is the pupil of yesterday." How much would To-day know, if it were not the pupil of Yesterday? But it is chiefly through what we call history, that Yesterday is able to communicate to its pupil the wisdom which it has hoarded. Moreover, it is because To-day learns wisdom from Yesterday, that it is able to teach wisdom to To-morrow; and it is, also, by the same means. There are some people who have so intense and interest in the immediate and tangible facts of life, that they are accustomed to sneer at the past, -- calling it the dead past. After all, however, the past is not dead, except to persons who are ignorant of it, or who are themselves dead in their own thinking concerning it. Through the power of history, the past does not die; it is gifted with a perpetual life, and it reaches forward with a strong and helpful hand into the times that now are and are to be.

I remember that once a student of mine, in a thesis which he was reading to me, used a pretty figure about history. "History," said he, "is only a stern light on the ship in which we are making life's voyage." I asked him to consider whether he was quite right in describing history as "only a stern light." Of course, even a stern light is something, but it is not all that our life-ship needs. How about a bow light, also, -- a light that may throw some gleam across the waters into which we are advancing? So, even though it might hurt the neatness of the image, we should probably improve its accuracy, by saying, that history is not only a stern light, but a bow light as well: it flashes its rays far back over those rough waters through which our ship has been ploughing, and it throws at least some illumination forward upon the deeps of time toward which we are about to sail.


Upon the whole, then, it may fairly be said, that by withdrawing now and then from the present, and by making tours of studious observation into the past, we greatly enlarge our knowledge and our capacity for knowledge; we teach ourselves toleration, and even sympathy, for types of person and society, for opinions and for courses of action, quite unlike our own; we become more truly catholic and cosmopolitan; we become more modest, too, by realizing that mighty persons and mighty peoples have lived in this world and left it ages before we came into it; we learn to understand better our own place in the general movement of time and events, and how to adjust ourselves to both for the greater service, for the more perfect happiness, of ourselves and others.

If, indeed, this be a just account of the matter, perhaps we shall not deem it an extravagance to say, as was lately said by a sober-minded English critic, that "history is the central study among human studies, capable of illuminating and enriching all the rest."


I should be sorry to come to the end of this discussion without a word as to the importance of arranging for the study of history upon a wise plan, that is, upon a generous and a comprehensive plan. Perhaps in no other study are pettiness and provincialism more incongruous than in this study. Not even patriotism is a sufficient justification for limiting our historical readings to our own country. We Americans have a right to be glad and proud over the strong enthusiasm for the nation which now fills every part of it. One manifestation of this robust patriotic ardor is to be seen in the extraordinary interest now felt among us in American history. Never before has American history been so much written, or so well written; never before has it been so eagerly studied. This is well. History, like charity, should begin at home; but neither charity nor history should end there. Our present danger is of so magnifying the importance of the history of our own country, as to forget the importance of attending to that of other countries also. The present popularity of American history is really a thing of recent growth. I can well remember when it was difficult to convince Americans that American history was not only important but fascinating, -- even by comparison with the history of modern Europe, or of ancient and mediaeval times. Apparently, this truth has been at last so well learned by us, that another truth is now liable to be forgotten, namely, the intellectual harm of a too exclusive study of American history. Even American history cannot be properly learned, if learned altogether apart from other history. "Without clear notions of general history," said Edward Freeman, "the history of particular countries can never be rightly understood." To no other country, perhaps, is this remark more applicable than it is to our own. Why our ancestors came to America, and how, and what ideas they brought with them, and what sorts of people they were, and what they did here, and how they fared in the land, and how they were interfered with and helped or hindered by the peoples of western Europe from among whom they had come, and how at last they threw off such interference, and how they have got on since then with themselves and with the rest of the world, and how they stand to-day as regards all these matters, -- are, indeed, the great topics of what we call American history, but they are likewise topics of European history as well. We commonly think of American history as beginning with the year 1492. These four centuries of American history cannot be truly known by any one who does not also know something really considerable of the histories of Spain, France, Holland, and England, during the same time. For us to study American history as a detached and an isolated experience, is to study it unwisely, -- so unwisely, in fact, as to insure our failure in grasping its real meaning.

If, however, we cannot understand American history without knowing modern European history, neither can we know modern European history without a fair knowledge of the history of Europe during the Middle Ages and in the ancient times. But how shall we know the history of mediaeval and of ancient Europe, unless we become acquainted with the remoter races from whom these earliest Europeans were derived, and the countries from which they came, and the ideas they brought with them thence, and their subsequent relations therewith?

Thus, we reach the broad principle that, as there is a certain unity in the life of the human family, so there is a certain unity in its history also; that no nation has ever lived without an original kinship with other nations, without more or less contact with other nations, without having its destinies interfered with and influenced by other nations. Consequently, no part of history can be truly known without knowing something of all parts. The ideal of the historical student should be to know the life of his own country as a constituent part of the general life of mankind. Thus, the study of American history must be preceded or at least accompanied by the study of Universal History.