Bryan Caplan  

The Value of History

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Today my homeschooled sons are taking the Advanced Placement United States History Exam.  I took the exam when I was 17.  They are 13.  Given how often I deride the practical value of history in The Case Against Education, you could fairly ask, "What's the point?"  Signaling is the easy answer.  Anyone can be homeschooled, but only a select minority can ace an A.P. test.  Strong A.P. scores are especially impressive if you're years younger than your competitors.

But that's hardly the whole story.  After all, we could have done other A.P.s instead.  So why history?  To be blunt: While I think history is a waste of time for 99% of people, I think my sons are in the other 1%.  They aren't just highly intelligent; they're good students.  More specifically:

1. Unlike almost everyone, my sons are interested in being social scientists.  And while the historically ignorant certainly can succeed in social science, you can't be a good social scientist without broad, deep historical knowledge.  Can't!

2. As you age, you lose your ability to master and retain large bodies of facts.  The best way to durably learn history - like foreign language - is to learn it young.  I acquired 90% of my historical knowledge between the ages of 10 and 20.  So age 13 seems like an ideal time for this task.

3. Unlike almost everyone, my sons genuinely enjoy learning about history.  (I was the same way).  As I've argued elsewhere, this is the crucial ingredient that transforms otherwise useless learning into a merit good.

4. The APUSH is a fantastic exam.  If a test can teach a person "how to think," the APUSH is such a test.  If you've got 195 minutes to spare, take it.

5. To be honest, I'm not convinced any test actually can teach anyone how to think.  That's why #4 says If.  Nevertheless, I am convinced that people who will ultimately learn how to think can learn how to think sooner.  How?  By practicing intellectually demanding tasks.  Since my sons are in the select category of people who will ultimately learn how to think, I have sped them toward their potential.
Is this all delusional nepotism?  Normally, I'd offer to bet, but not here.  However they actually do on the test, I am immensely proud of my boys.  End of story.

COMMENTS (11 to date)
Sam writes:

When I look back on AP US history, I think it gave me a pretty skewed view of our country. Fortunately I also like reading history, so I've been able to fix some of this on my own since then. My memories are a bit vague but here are some problems with the course, some of which might have been a function of my having been taught by a poor instructor.

* Little (no?) material on post-WWII history. Maybe they mentioned the Marshall Plan and the domino theory of the Cold War. But the most interesting and relevant history for being politically informed is arguably more recent.

* Generally uncritical stance on American foreign policy, even when the political opposition to that policy was a major part of the landscape at the time. (E.g. the decision to enter WWI was portrayed in my class's textbook as an "inevitable" consequence of the Lusitania incident.)

* Economic history figured in only two places: the slave-based economy of the South pre-Civil War, and the gold-vs-silver monetary debates of the Progressive era.

I wish I could find my old notes from the class but they are probably on some long-dead computer. I'm sure looking back on them I would have other objections.

I have much more positive memories of A.P. European history. Probably that was because the teacher was better. But partly I think it is because the much grander scope of that class meant that more focus was placed on just learning a lot of facts that I would never have learned otherwise. (Although nowadays I would probably recommend playing a video game like Europa Universalis IV in tandem with taking such a class.)

John Alcorn writes:

I can offer better evidence than the APUSH exam, that the young Caplan sons are in "the select category," and that they are already well on the path to knowing history and how to think. At an informal gathering, the boys comfortably held their own in a protracted, wide-ranging discussion-debate with an Ivy-League post-doctoral fellow in political theory, about the refugee crisis in Europe, national cultures, migration policy, and open borders!

Dave Smith writes:

How'd you have them prepare for the exam?

Tyler Wells writes:

I love it that Bryan’s lack of false modesty extends to his sons. I also appreciate Bryan sharing the homeschooling experiences of his sons with us, as I am also deeply interested in my own son’s education and intrigued by the signaling vs. skill acquisition debate.
I am a humble man and not at the top 1% of intellect like Bryan and his sons, but I applaud and appreciate Bryan wanting them to learn to think instead of just memorizing, which is what much of school is based on. With all humility, however, I would suggest that doing, by which I mean accomplishing tasks and being productive, is even better than learning to think. I am sure that Bryan and his sons are also doing this, and I hope that Bryan continues to share his experiences on homeschooling and his thoughts on educating his sons with us.

Nathan W writes:

What would happen if we never learned about the Nazis?

What would happen if we never learned about the many ways in which decent systems had become corroded, for example in ways where uber-elites divided and conquered the common people, resulting in their eventual practical brainwashing (intimidation may suffice) and subservience.

Studying history will not make you rich. But those who study it may find themselves serving on the vanguard of preventing the collapse into hell on earth. It is our duty to study history.

And, also what you said. 100% agree. I don't think it's the right age to scare the children. But maybe it is the right time.

emerich writes:

I was a bit surprised but reassured that your opinion of the APUSH is so high. There's been a lot of recent criticism that as it gets revised its left-wing perspective gets ever-more pronounced. I take it one still learns about the founding principles, not mainly about genocide, pillage, and imperialism, cultural or otherwise?

Link here for example:

BTW interested in a blog post on why German, and not say Italian, opera is the acme of the genre.

Michael Strong writes:

Most AP US History preparatory materials, and often sample exams, propound a straightforward progressive narrative of American history: The robber barons, promoting an evil laissez-faire system, were happily overcome by the muckrakers and Teddy Roosevelt. The rise of progressive legislation saved Americans from suffering and misery. The Great Depression was caused, in part, by inequality. FDR's activist government saved the US after Hoover's attachment to laissez-faire almost destroyed us. Etc.

I see the AP US History program as the single greatest obstacle to economic literacy in the US. Many (most?) of our elite students take it in preparation for college admissions. It provides a powerful morality tale that is sanctioned as absolute truth by the College Board.

Later courses in economics, either at university or in summer programs such as those by IHS and FEE, may counteract some of the damage done. But I suspect more students take the US AP exam than take economics courses. Moreover, most economics courses come across as dry problem-solving rather than an inspiring moral narrative. Moreover, they rarely address economic history at all. The number of students who actually take a course in U.S. economic history, to address the many economic fallacies in the progressive narrative, is vanishingly small.

Add to this university history departments that mostly emphasize and elaborate on the progressive morality tale in US history. The result is that most college graduates continue to believe that laissez-faire was harmful to the working class, that heroic reformers improved conditions through legislation, the Great Depression was caused by inequality, etc.

Reform of the AP US History program, if it were possible, might arguably be the greatest Archimedian lever available to libertarians. Imagine a world in which instead of social signaling among intellectuals consisted not of "I'm more progressive than thou," but rather "I don't make idiotic mistakes regarding economic history or economics."

Peter writes:

The Value of History.

Thomas Sowell recently (May 3, 2016) expressed dismay that a college student did not know why the US Civil war was fought.

Many people voted in the primary elctions for a socialist. Did those people have any idea what socialism has done in the past?

The importance of history is to learn from past mistakes as well as to know what works.

MichaelM writes:

The purpose of history is the purpose of all liberal arts: To provide a broadened perspective. It's gentleman's training and always has been.

There is, of course, another purpose to learning history: A passionate love of the subject. It is truly the greatest style of hobbies: You never run out of material and any curiosity you develop can be chased to incredible depths. While not everyone may love history in particular, that is really a wonderful attribute to find in a past time.

I find the the latter a much more valuable purpose.

Shane L writes:

I've lately thought one great value of a more sophisticated knowledge of history is that it helps one to question the simplistic lessons of history that are popular in politics. Many times I have encountered hawkish people who justify military intervention by saying "we tried staying out of it in the 1930s and you see how that worked out". This reading of all human history to pick a single, somewhat questionable, lesson to suit all future conflicts is daft. Learning history gives us counter-examples with rather different lessons.

AS writes:

Depending on your definition of success, you can be a very successful economist, as measured by publications and citations. without understanding history. Just math and econometric techniques.

I don't know if 10-20 is the such a critical time. As a STEM student I dismissed all liberal arts topics but then as I got older I began to get into history books and read them in my spare time. My ability to learn historical facts seems to have only improved over time, as my passion grows. You can only learn something if you are truly motivated and curious to learn it -- it can't be forced.

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