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 agendas. Hitler 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.
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.