As I said in comments over at New Kid’s (way back now), I teach history because it’s fun. For some reason I’ve got an affinity for a particular period and questions of the past, and teaching it lets me get paid to think about them.
To be more thoughtful about it, I think history teaches us to understand the invisible events and structures that lay beneath the surface of the things we encounter every day. When a king proclaims a law, and then revises it six years later, and again three years later, those visible bits sticking up (the laws) tell us all kinds of information about how that law was clearly not working to solve the problem, and from there we can figure out what was going on, what people were doing instead. Everything has a backstory, and a lot of history is about figuring out that backstory, whether in a primary or secondary text. What actions and emotions are people playing from, or playing to, when they write?
The other thing that fascinates me is advertising, and I don’t see being a historian as all that unrelated. My focus of study is something that is basically an advertising campaign. I watch ads the same way I read a historical text—to consider what must have happened in the background to get to that point, and to figure out what the makers of the ad expect to happen in the future.
That’s the skill I want my students to be able to take away from my classes. I want them to be able to read an article or hear a politician speak—about politics today, or about the environment in Africa, or about popular culture—and think, “hey, that sounds really defensive. And I bet it’s defensive because of this other factoid I know. I’m going to take this with a grain of salt.” Or maybe “oh, they are responding to this challenge, even though they don’t say so.”
I quickly read New Kid’s and Tenured Radical’s answer to this question, and in general I resonate to what they say. But I haven’t been reading too many of these around the way, because I thought eventually I might get tagged (thanks, Jennifer!), and didn’t want to wipe out my own ideas. It really constrained my blog-reading for a while.
Update: I suspect this old quotation from Squadratomagico also captures what I mean.