The Value of History
By Bryan Caplan
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.