Why studying history should be viewed as necessity, not luxury

Why do we have to study this stuff? While you might not ask me this question outright, I know many of you wonder. I sometimes wonder myself.

Why do I spend my days teaching history to you? Does it all really matter in the end?

Is it important for us to make connections with the past?

Writer John Egerton grew up in Trigg County in western Kentucky, but he chose a couple from the other end of the state as the subjects for his book, “Generations: An American Family.”

Egerton’s book made a huge impression on me when I first read it 30 years ago in 1983.

Two of my students gave me a nice hardback edition of the book because whenever I open up my old paperback edition, loose pages fall from the book’s spine and rusting paperclips marking key passages have marred the dog-eared pages.

I return to the book again and again, quoting memorized passages to my classes semester after semester.

The central premise of the book helps me understand more about what I do for a living and why I do it.

Egerton wanted to write the story of a typical American family, but he also wanted to use that family’s experience to “encompass the broader history of the American


Egerton chose to center his story on Bur-nam and Addie Ledford from Harlan County in eastern Kentucky and then Garrard County in central Kentucky.

The author talked with the two – Burnam in his early 100s and Addie in her late 90s – in scores of interviews.

After the book was published, Burnam died at 106 and Addie at 102.

In one of Egerton’s conversations with the old man, Burnam uttered a remarkable statement.

I want to quote it to you, and I want you to let the import of his statement sink in.

Burnam said, “I went to see my great-grandmother on Cranks Creek in Harlan County in 1881, when I was five years old.” And then he said simply, “She was born in 1791, when George Washington was president.”

Now, think of that.

Burnam Ledford talked with someone who had witnessed every generation of American history since George Washington!

Neither I, nor anyone reading these alphabet letters can ever do what Burnam Ledford did.

Those days are over, now buried only in an individual’s memory or a nation’s collective past.

Still, Egerton knew, and we all know, even if we hesitate to admit it, that the past, if used wisely, can help us in the present.

The author said it this way in 1983: “There remains a remnant of elderly Americans who have seen and heard every generation of citizens in the history of this nation. They are the last connecting link between our ancestors and ourselves. When their time is gone,” and that time is now surely gone, “there will be none who remember the 19th century.”

F. King Alexander, the chancellor of Louisiana State University and Murray State’s former president, told of meeting Margaret Thatcher during his graduate work at Oxford.

Thatcher asked Alexander’s friend what she was reading (or studying) at Oxford. When the friend answered, “I’m reading history.”

Thatcher responded, “Oh, what a luxury.”

But studying history is not a luxury. It is a necessity.

Don’t you think there is a need to “keep the link intact between our ancestors and ourselves,” in order to know where we’ve come from and in order to know ourselves?

Reading and thinking about our history – the history of our families, our state, our nation and our world – allow us to do what Burnam Ledford did face to face with his great-grandmother.

We are keeping the link intact between our ancestors and ourselves.


Column by Duane Bolin Professor of history