How History Class Increases Resilience in Students

Let’s walk down memory lane. Do you remember the hilarious segments of Jay Leno on The Tonight Show called “Jay Walking”, in which he interviewed everyday people on the street about familiar facts from U.S. history? Here are a few of the questions he asked:

Q: What country did America fight in the Revolutionary War?

A: France. Or, was it Germany? I forget now.

Q: When was the Declaration of Independence adopted?

A: 1492

Q: Who said: “Give me liberty or give me death?”

A: Napoleon Bonaparte.

Q: How many stars are on that flag?

A: It’s moving too fast to count. Uh, 32?

Obviously, Leno showed edited versions of his funniest interactions, but this doesn’t detract from the fact that far too many young adults know more about Kim Kardashian or Justin Bieber than they do about Patrick Henry or Thomas Jefferson. They fail to have any sense of context for our history and society.

What’s more, it seems there’s a rise in the number of students today who lack resilience and are unable to cope with the normal anxieties that accompany life. Almost everywhere I go, I meet teachers and coaches who grieve the lack of resilience in their students. In a 2014 study, it was reported that “more than half of Australian students lack the skills to deal with life’s difficulties, with many citing depression, stress, and a lack of confidence as common issues.” Additionally, Oxford and Cambridge reported increases in referrals to their university counseling services in 2010, citing that new students lack the resilience to make it through their college classes.

Did you ever consider that these two items might be connected? That there may be an association between embracing history and being resilient?

The Connection Between Resilience and History

A growing body of research now reveals that having a strong sense of history actually enables us to handle stress and bounce back. I just finished the book Resilience by Navy SEAL Eric Greitens, who reveals that students who build a knowledge of history also demonstrate a strong sense of resilience. And it begins with a healthy family history. The more students feel a part of a narrative — both at home, then as a people — the greater their chances are of living a resilient life.

Let’s step back for a moment and reflect on how knowing history can actually foster resilience in people, specifically students. The following are three common sense ideas to consider today.

How Can a Knowledge of History Help Students with Resilience?

  1. It provides them with the big picture—they are part of a larger narrative.

I can easily feel overwhelmed when I feel isolated, like I’m facing hardship all alone. But when I know my nation’s and my family’s history, I no longer feel alone. I see that I’m part of a larger narrative, which makes me feel connected along the way and inspired to play my part.

  1. It encourages them with stories about people who’ve endured tougher times.

I remember hearing my father and grandfather talk about the Great Depression of the 1930s. They didn’t complain about it; in fact, they felt those days were gifts, teaching them to be resourceful and grateful for even the small benefits they enjoyed. This gave me perspective as I surveyed my Christmas presents as a child.

  1. It enables them to learn from mistakes.

We’ve all heard the phrase: Those who ignore history are destined to repeat it. When I know my history, I can avoid committing some of the errors others have made. I can stand on the shoulders of our forefathers who paid a dear price — sometimes through sacrifice and failure — so that we, the descendants, can enjoy a better life.

So what can we do?

Stop hesitating. Be a storyteller, relay the tales of people in history, and ask your students how they can stand on the shoulders of those who came before. Talk about what we can take away from those narratives. I had a history teacher during my sophomore year of high school that did this brilliantly, weaving in colorful stories and lessons learned along the way. Let’s connect our students today with the bigger narrative they’re a part of and can continue.

We are part of a story that includes ancestors and descendants. We can’t do much about our ancestors, but we can certainly prepare our descendants.

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How History Class Increases Resilience in Students