Six Reasons to Study History

At some point, in elementary and high school, you took a history course.  The curriculum focused on your country or continent (e.g. European History).  Being from Canada, I learned about the Fur Trade, French and English competition in North America, national and provincial politics, and a smattering of other topics. 

However, no one told us why we studied history.  We didn’t learn how studying the past could benefit us, enrich our lives and teach us skills to help us navigate careers and even our lives.  School teachers omitted the most fundamental question: Why study history? 

Perhaps addressing this fundamental question would evoke more interest and appreciation in the subject

Historians have written extensively on the importance of understanding the past.  After careful consideration, we have distilled these explanations into six reasons to study history. 

  • Understand the Present.  “Everything,” Jules Benjamin writes, “that exists in the present has come out of the past.”  Our material life, for instance, grew out of past developments.  The Agricultural Revolution that began some 10,000 years led to farming, rising populations, and, as historians have recently pointed out, much of the environmental damage we contend with today.  Technologies have changed our lives – papermaking in China, the Gutenberg printing press, irrigation, gunpower, and computers, to name a few.  Politically, our borders, governing bodies, and values come out of the past.  Democracy, a Greek concept, hails back thousands of years, as does Confucianism, a significant factor in Chinese politics and culture.  Modern religious conflicts between the monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – can be better understood by delving into the past.  Current issues around race, gender, class and many others can be traced back in time.    
  • Understand Causation.  As Peter Stearns and Marcus Collins write, causation is the “factors which promoted a change in the first place.” (33). Not surprisingly, causation is a contentious matter among historians.  Regarding the decline of the Roman Empire, some historians emphasize external factors such as the growing determination and strength of the barbarians. In contrast, others have devoted more attention to internal factors such as corruption and financial mismanagement.  Whatever their positions, contemporary historians tend to agree that “most major developments respond to several factors, that is, multiple causations (34). Lessons about causation allow us to analyze current events with a more critical eye.  Conspiracy theorists, for instance, who point to Bill Gates or a secret New Order as the orchestraters of the COVID-19 pandemic, would be well served to study history and causation more carefully.  A recommended read – David Hackett Fischer’s Historical Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought
  • Situate Events in Context.  Intrinsically linked to causation is context.  Context, in short, is the set of conditions in which events unfold.   Historians tell us that Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip’s assassination of Austria-Hungary’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand sparked the beginning of World War I.  They also rightly assert we need to explore the conditions in which Princip shot the Archduke – Great Power rivalries, militarism, nationalism, and various other factors came into play – to develop a fuller understanding of what happened.  Understanding context helps us understand events (past and present) in sophisticated rather than superficial ways. 
  • Challenge Abuses of History.  Somepeople use history to further their agendasHitler and the Nazis rewrote history to justify their actions.  Among other past abuses, they identified a longstanding Jewish conspiracy to undermine German society while espousing their contrived record of Aryan accomplishment and superiority.   We need to challenge these abuses.  As Margaret McMillan writes, “Politicians and other leaders too often get away with misusing or abusing history for their own ends because the rest of us do not know enough to challenge them. (36)  This is especially relevant now, in what some call the age of disinformation.  Politicians like Donald Trump casually refer to a great America of the past or fabricates “facts” about election fraud or other issues to reinforce his position.  Historical training, as Stearns and Collins point out, “helps people to handle different kinds of evidence and to sort fact from opinion and disinformation.” (9). After all, who wants to be lead astray by those informed by partisanship, opportunism, or lazy thinking?
  • Pleasure. The love of learning!Some people approach history simply for the joy of learning more about the past – tracing family trees, visiting exotic locations and past eras can be exhilarating and enriching.
  • Practical Skills. People often overlook the practical skills involved in historical study.  You learn how to research topics and interpret sources for their biases and background.   In the process, you assess various viewpoints and interpretations.  Communicating your views helps you develop critical thinking, organization, as well as your writing and verbal skills.   Universities, for instance, apply these skills to a variety of topics.  Entrepreneurs and business students examine case studies of businesses past and present to gain insights into how companies succeed and fail. Law schools refer to pasts decisions – precedence 

There are many other reasons to study history that we will explore in future blogs.  John Tosh writes that “historical education achieves a number of goals at once: it trains the mind, enlarges the sympathies and provides a much-needed perspective on some of the most pressing problems of our time. (35)   These factors, coupled with the pure pleasure of learning about our past, offer poignant reasons to explore history. 


Selected Bibliography.

Benjamin, Jules R. A Student’s Guide to History.  Boston: St. Martins, 2001.

Collins, Marc and Peter N. Stearns.  Why Study History? London: London Publishing Partnership, 2020.

Fischer, David Hackett.  Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought.  New York: Harper Perennial, 1970. 

McMillan, Margaret. The Uses and Abuses of History.  Toronto: Penguin Group, 2008. 

Stearns, Peter N. et al. Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History.  New York: New York University Press, 2000.

Tosh, John. The Pursuit of History: Aims, Methods and New Directions in the Study of Modern History.  Essex: Pearson Education Limited, 1999.

Wineberg, Sam. Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts.  Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2001.   

AP World History: 6 Themes Explored

World history explores many topics and themes. As Jay P. Harmon points out, “The AP World History test developers want you to see the big picture.  They want you to make connections across the globe and across time and to analyze common human experiences like migration, trade, religion, politics and society.” (6)  Chronology remains essential, but the focus is on various themes over time and space. 

 The Advanced Placement (AP)World History program identifies six broad themes. 

Human-Environment Interaction.  Here we focus on the mutual impact of humans and their environments.  Environments largely determined what people ate, how they travelled, what they built, and organized themselves. Access to water, for example, facilitated trade and travel and enabled farming.  The earliest civilizations arose near major waterways (Mesopotamia and the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, Egypt and the Nile River).  Water also divided people.  The Americas and Eurasia lived unaware of each other (on a large scale ) until the 15th century. Topography impacted human societies. The mountainous terrain separating various fertile basins in Greece encouraged the formation of city-states rather than the more centralized polities.Humans, of course, impacted the environment.  People manipulated waterways – irrigation, dams, canals – to facilitate farming and transport. Agriculture, the rise of cities, and a rapid rise in consumption drastically altered the global landscape.        

Cultural Development/Interaction.  Cultural elements such asreligion, belief systems, arts and architecture, and ideas profoundly impacted human history.  Religious belief informed the fundamental institutions of marriage, childhood, and the family.  Politics often reflected preeminent intellectual traditions. Confucianism, for instance, reinforced respect for Chinese traditions.  The political ideas of Plato, Cicero, Machiavelli, Locke, Marx shaped political thought and institutions.  The fact that various communist movements in the 20th century – the Soviet Union, Cambodia, to name a few  – distorted Marxian theories do not discount the global influence of his ideas.  Cultures mingled through trade, travel and war.  Mesopotamian and Egyptian architecture inspired Greek builders.  Religions reached as Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity spread over water and land, attracting new converts.  Evolution, the brainchild of Charles Darwin, made people think differently about their origins and place in the world.  Subsequent pseudo-scientific claims of Social Darwinism offered justifications for imperialism and industrialization in the 19th and 20 centuries. 

Statebuilding, Expansion, Conflict.  Essentially this is about politics.  How do people govern?  How do people develop, expand, and resist political control?  We examine various political forms, including city-states, provinces, states, empires, and dynasties. How did polities differ, and how did they resemble each other?  Athens and Sparta, for instance, city-states that shared a language and belief system, held different ideas about statehood, gender roles, and education.  How did Rome evolve from a republic to an empire, and how did it rise to become one of the most powerful polities in history before declining then falling? Political revolutions, of course, deserve attention.  The French and American Revolutions of the 19th century and later the Russian Revolution in 1917, and Mao Tse Tung’s communist revolution in China in 1949 profoundly shaped the 20th century and beyond.  Conflict, of course, occurred between states.  AP history examines conflicts such as the Peloponnesian Wars, the World Wars of the 20th century and the Cold War.

Creation, Growth, Interaction of Economic Systems.  As John Tosh writes, economic history includes “all those activities that have to do with production, exchange and consumption. (81). A basic example – Greeks grew olives and exchanged them for wheat that they could not produce in sufficient quantities.  Changes in production technologies and practices profoundly influenced the course of history.  The Agricultural revolution brought about a fundamental shift from hunting and gathering to farming, led to drastic population growth and encouraged the specialization of labour.  Later, the Industrial Revolution, beginning in Britain, led to more fundamental changes, including population increases, urbanization, and middle-class growth. Goods, ideas and technologies were exchanged along established trade routes like the Silk Roads and waterways.  Chinese technologies such as papermaking and gunpowder travelled westward.  Compromised access to these routes encouraged western European nation-states to send expeditions across the Atlantic, eventually settling into the Americas.

Development and Change in Social Structure. John Tosh writes, “Social structure essentially means the sum of the social relationships between the many different groups in society. (85)  Here, we explore concepts such as gender, class, and race. Gender roles played a central role in social organizations pervaded by patriarchy.  Men dominated the public sphere – politics, trade and commerce – while women focused on domestic matters like child-rearing and managing the household.  Race played an integral role in human affairs.  Social Darwinism of the 19th century fed justifications for imperialism, slavery, segregation and other exploitive practices culminating with Nazi Germany’s pseudo-scientific racial theories that inspired horrific atrocities.  Class played a vital role in historical events. Slavery existed in most ancient societies. India’s caste system determined one place in society, setting strict conditions of what people could do and how they interacted with each other.  Feudalism dominated medieval Europe, and landowners enjoyed a relatively easy life to the peasantry who laboured the land.  Class struggle, often inspired by desperation and a sense of unfairness, fomented numerous rebellions and revolutions. 

Technology and Innovation. The word technology, writes James E. McClellan III, derives from the Greek techne having to do with practical arts, craftsmanship, and techniques. (1)  World history offers innumerable examples of influential technologies and innovation. For example, irrigation and canal building facilitated farming in the earliest civilizations. The advent of writing and, later, the printing press accelerated the spread of ideas.  The printing press, for instance, played a vital role in the Protestant Reformation of the fifteenth century by spreading Martin Luther’s critique of Catholic interpretations and practices.  Agricultural innovations forever altered our relationship with our natural environments and further changed with the advent of industrialization.  Factory work encouraged a different approach to time as days, weeks, and months were measured to maximize production.   Medical technologies increased life expectancy via vaccines, operational procedures and more sanitary practices. As a result, infant mortality and maternal death drastically decreased.  The 20th century saw an accelerated technological change.  The world wars stimulated innovative industrial processes, communication, transportation and, of course, weaponry.   Flight, space travel, and computers, once confined to science fiction, became a reality.    

The Advanced Placement (AP) program recognizes that history involves the interplay of many factors. Therefore, themes offer an effective organizing principle to explore, compare and contrast societies of different times and places.

Explore and enjoy! 

Selected Bibliography.

Bartlett, Kenneth.  The Experience of History. West Sussex: John Wiley and Sons, 2017

Harmon, Jay. P.  AP World History: Crash Course.  New Jersey: Research and Education Association, 2018.

McClellan III, James E. and Harold Dorn.  Science and Technology in World History.  Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2015                                                   

Tosh, John.  The Pursuit of History. Essex: Pearson Education Limited, 1999.