Why We Need History in Education

By Neil Paterson


All of us, whether we agree with Capitalism or Socialism, need to give more time to understand the origins of these systems' ideas and fundamental principles. If anything is being glossed over in today's discourse, it's the fundamentals of the doctrines that we claim to espouse and the history of those doctrines. We seem so caught up in yelling at each other about the topical issues of the current day or news cycle, and hardly any constructive conversation is taking place.

Any idea that you or I could conjure at this moment can be traced back to a fundamental principle. It's nearly guaranteed that this principle has been previously discussed at great length and in intricate detail. All capitalists, socialists, indeed anyone who propagates an ideology, must learn their history and understand the origins of their ideas before they get swept up in the shallow promises of either system.

Capitalists may promise you that "you are free to become anything you want," without much consideration of those greatly struggling at the bottom end of the socioeconomic classes. The capitalist does not lack empathy for those who struggle, but they may want to give more attention to the nuances and specific issues of these people. They believe that capitalism can pull those people up to a higher standing by giving them opportunities and freedom of choice. 

The fundamentals of today's capitalist, certainly in the U.S., center around John Locke's concept of mankind and the emphasis on individualism. Locke says, "When we know our own Strength, we shall better know what to undertake with hopes of Success." 1 Adam Smith and Milton Friedman later applied similar principles to the free market model in an economic context. Adam Smith says in his Wealth of Nations: "Every man, so long as he does not violate the laws of justice, is left perfectly free to pursue his interest in his own way…" 2 If I proclaim to be a Capitalist, I should understand this background and be able to reconcile the issues of the free individual (e.g., greed, corruption), the roles of government, and the effects they can have on society. In my experience, Capitalists are more willing to discuss their history and are quick to point out that capitalism has its flaws. It seems to be much harder for a Socialist to introspect and reflect.

The promise of Socialists is far greater and fantastic (and I mean literally, 'of fantasy'): Utopia, a place where everyone is equal and society is free of disparity and injustice, especially in terms of wealth. This sort of result has yet to arise, but we should try to understand the core ideas and the history behind this doctrine. Socialism is founded on collectivism, and rather than focus on the goals of the individual, it prioritizes the goals of the whole group/society. 

This ideology is usually associated with the 20th-century regimes of Russia, China, and Germany, yet today's socialists are convinced that these past regimes were never actually socialist. However, this seems to be the problem: Socialists rarely want to discuss the history of socialist ideals, only the theory, and virtue. Karl Marx, one of the greatest influencers of socialist doctrine, wanted the socialist/communist to undermine history in general: "In bourgeois society, therefore, the past dominates the present; in Communist society, the present dominates the past." 3 Marx made it clear that you must overcome history's grip and only be concerned about the here-and-now. Today, modern socialists are very upset at the current system and wish to implement their theories, but they do not seem interested in discussing their history.

We must understand the lessons of the past and be well aware of the great thinkers before us: Plato, Marx, Locke, Tocqueville, Friedman, Alinsky, Hayek, and many others. They all spent an enormous amount of time thinking about these concepts in far greater detail than you or I, and to ignore them on the grounds that it doesn't apply in today's society is pure arrogance. Our problems are anything but unique. So ask yourself: "Are my ideas that new? Has someone else had the same thought?" Chances are you will find mountains of books and articles that discuss the same idea.


  1. Locke, J. (1689). An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2008.

  2. Smith, A. (1776). The Wealth of Nations. London: Methuen & Co., Ltd., 1930.

  3. Marx, K. (1848). The Communist Manifesto. Massachusetts: Regnery Publishing, Inc., 2009.

About Neil

Neil Paterson is a Contributing Writer for Young Americans Against Socialism. Neil works in Human Research Protection and has backgrounds in Psychology, Music, and Research Compliance.

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