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. 

Enjoy!

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.   

The Printing Press

William Manchester describes it as an “epochal invention” and “one of the great movements in the history of Western civilization. (95). “One of the most important technological innovations of Western civilization”, writes Jackson J. Spielvogel.   James McClellan and Harold Dorn write that this invention incited a “communications revolution” that  “altered the cultural landscape of early modern Europe.” (224)

 In 1453, craftsman Johannes Gutenberg (1398-1468) invented the printing press, which led to the mass production of printed works and incited massive change in Europe and the world.   How did Gutenberg achieve this?  What were some of the immediate and long-term effects of one of the most seminal inventions in human history? 

Before Gutenberg. For centuries, Europeans copied written works by hand, spending months transcribing works such as the Bible.  China, the inventors of paper, used more advanced copying technologies.  Printers began carving pages of text into woodblocks (woodblock printing) in the eighth or ninth century.  According to one Jesuit priest who lived in China in the late 16th century, this process could make 1500 copies per day – a much faster process than transcribing! (Headrick, 84).

Around 1045, Chinese inventor Phi Sheng created moveable (also known as interchangeable) type, using wax to attach individual ceramic characters to an iron frame. (Headrick 85)  Sheng’s invention allowed printers to rearrange symbols to create different texts. Woodblock printing, however, remained more practical, efficient, and cheaper than movable type printing. Chinese writing includes thousands of pictograph characters, which made arranging individual ceramic symbols an extremely time-consuming task. (143)

Movable-type, however, could be effective if applied to a writing system with a manageable number of symbols.

How did Gutenberg do it? Gutenberg allegedly created the printing press independent of Asian influence. There is some debate around this view.  We know, however, he used and modified recent inventions while adding his innovations.   Oil-based ink, already used to decorate textiles, offered a stable alternative for paper printing.  Gutenberg’s unique contribution is his development of moveable metal type.  He created steel signatures for each number, letter, and punctuation mark, then attached these symbols to a lead base and assembled them in a type tray. ( Parker, 580)  Next, he spread ink on the letters, lay a sheet of paper (or other material) over the letters, then used the press (adapted from the screw press used with wine presses and other applications) to impress the arranged symbols on the sheet. Symbols could be rearranged, reused and easily replaced, making for a relatively inexpensive process.  (Parker, 580) The twenty-six character Phoenician alphabet made movable-type more practical than the more elaborate Chinese lettering system. 

By modern standards, this seems like a tedious process.  Gutenberg, however, took a big step in mechanizing a process that enabled mass production of printed materials.  In doing so, he facilitated significant change in Europe and the world.     

Decentralizing Knowledge: The Spread of Ideas and Vernacular Languages. What were some of these changes? In practical terms, the printing press allowed people to mass-produce duplicate copies of written documents.  It offered a more accurate process than transcribing simple human errors.  Now, people could create identical copies of written materials such as pamphlets, posters, books, and sermons. 

Some lauded the invention as a victory for the spread of literacy and ideas.  Others feared it as a means of fomenting division.  The Holy Roman Empire, the overseer of a united Christendom, saw the rampant spread of printing as a threat to Christian unity.  As William Manchester points out, “Until late in the fifteenth century, most books and nearly all education had been controlled by the Church.” (Manchester, 95)   In part, this control entailed the exclusive use of Latin while discouraging and even outlawing vernacular languages such as German.  

The diffusion of knowledge, however, could not be controlled.  The production of printed material for the time is staggering.  By 1500 more than two hundred towns had print shops, and “almost 40,000 recorded editions of books had been published in 14 European languages, with Germany and Italy accounting for two-thirds. (Manchester, 92).  The Giolito Press in Italy, for instance, published numerous plays, poems and other works in Italian. 

These numbers increased exponentially in the following centuries.  Printing also made it easier to circulate ideas and opinions, including those that challenged traditional authority. Martin Luther’s famous 95 Theses (1521), criticizing the Catholic Churches sale of indulgences, were printed in German and widely circulated, driving the Protestant Revolution and Christian. 

Classical Literature and the Renaissance. Written works increasingly included a mix of religious and secular topics.  Gutenberg’s Bible sold well, as did Latin and Greek classics.  Printers noticed the growing appetite for classical works and strove to feed it.  Aldus Manutius, for instance, “set up the Aldine Press in Venice in 1495 to specialize in Greek, Latin, and early Italian classics.” (Parker 220) Aldus also published Greek dictionaries and grammar books. Historians identify an increasingly literate Europe with greater access to these classics leading to the classically inspired Renaissance.

Conclusion. Gutenberg’s printing press fostered a communications revolution that profoundly impacted Europe and the world.  More people learned to read and had greater access to a wider variety of ideas.  This diffusion of information – religious documents, philosophy, children’s books, science, classical texts – encouraged diversity while undermining the continent’s unity based on one language (Latin) and Catholicism’s pervasive belief system.  Printing also enabled papermaking, print shops, typefounding, publishing, writing, and other print-related industries.   

Gutenberg’s printing press certainly ranks among the top developments in the history of communications and, for some historians, it stands as one of the most outstanding achievements of all time. 

Selected Bibliography.

Cahill, Thomas.  Heretics and Heroes: How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Created Our World.  New York: Anchor Books, 2014.

Headrick, Daniel R.  Technology: A World History.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2009

Manchester, William.  A World Lit Only By Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance.  New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1993.

McClellan, James and Dorn, Harold.  Science and Technology in World History: An Introduction.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015.  

Newman, Garfield.  Echoes from the Past: World History to the 16th Century. McGraw-Hill Ryerson Limited, 2001. 

Parker, Philip. World History: From the Ancient World to the Information Age. New York: Penguin Random House, 2017.

Spielvogel, Jackson J.  Western Civilization, Volume B: 1300-1815. Eight Edition. Boston: Wadsworth, 2012

What was the “Agricultural Revolution”? 

Try this. Ask people to name three revolutions.  Depending on their background, they might cite the American and French Revolutions of the nineteenth century.  Others will mention the Russian Revolution of 1917 or the Industrial Revolution.  How many cited the Agricultural Revolution?  Likely not many.  Ironic, since the agricultural revolution stands as one of the more fundamental and far-reaching developments in human history.  Peter Stearns calls it a “great watershed in human history.” (Stearns 16) Ronald Wright argues that “In the magnitude of its consequences, no other invention rivals farming…”  (Wright, 45)

So, what is the agricultural revolution? When did it happen?  How did it change how humans lived? It is a far-reaching and complex topic but let’s try to cover the essentials.  “Essentially,” the agricultural revolution transitioned nomadic hunting-gathering societies to human societies that grew their food and for some domesticated animals.  This development is revolutionary because it fundamentally changed how people lived.  Hunting and gathering societies depended on edible wild plants and animals, whereas agricultural communities controlled and shaped their environment (to some extent) to grow crops and domesticate animals.  Besides planting crops, agricultural societies changed their landscapes through irrigation and canal construction.   

When Did it Happen? Where did it happen first? The above chronology offers a general timeline. Essentially we are looking at 9000 BCE to 3500 BCE.  Agriculture on a large scale first happened in various river valleys (e.g. Nile River, Indus Valley, Mesopotamia, Mesoamerica) that offered reliable water sources and fertile soil. Different crops grew throughout the world.  Egypt produced wheat and barley. People living on what became the Greek peninsula grew grapes and olives.  China cultivated rice

There are two points to remember.  One is that this revolution happened over a very long time – 1000s of years.   Secondly, agriculture occurred independently in various parts of the world and at different times. Mesoamerica, for instance, had no contact with Eurasia and alone learned to cultivate crops like maize and squash. Later, as populations grew and interacted more through trade, agricultural practices and technologies would be shared and accelerate agricultural production over larger areas. 

Nomadic to Sedentary and Permanent Dwellings.  Tending to crops requires people to stay in one area.  Hence the term “sedentary agriculture.”  Nomadic people might remain in one place for some time, but as soon as the supply of wild plants and or game ran low or migrated, they were on the move.   Permanent dwellings offered space to store food and house families.    

Growing Populations, Social and Political Specialization By increasing food production, the agricultural revolution also facilitated drastic population growth.  Agriculture could sustain more people in a smaller area.  As Greg Woolf writes, “5 square miles cold support a farming village of 150 people. (Woolf 58).  A more reliable food source also contributed to higher life expectancy.   These growing population centers became the first steps toward cities, city-states and even empires.  A food surplus allowed people to adopt more specialized roles in families, politics and religious life. 

What motivated hunters and gatherers to adopt agriculture?Great question.  After all, farming required more effort than hunting and gathering.  Accordingly, people likely adopted agriculture very gradually. Probably, circumstances pushed them in this direction.  Climate change, for example, might have encouraged big game to migrate north of the Middle East and other river valley areas.  Overhunting also might have significantly diminished the wild animal population.  Another factor might be growing populations that required alternative food supply offered by hunting and gathering.     

Historians, of course, differ on how the Agricultural Revolution came about, how it evolved and its impact.  Concerning the latter, some historians have lauded it as one of the seminal movements of human progress.  Others see it as the catalyst for current problems such as overpopulation, consumerism, rapid species extinction and climate change.  Whatever their position, they agree that the Agricultural Revolution is one of the most fundamental developments in human history. 

Select Bibliography.

Havari, Yural Noah.  Sapiens.  A Brief History of Humankind.  Toronto: McLelland and Stewart, 2014. 

McClellan III, James E. and Harold Dorn.  Science and Technology in World History: An Introduction.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 2015

Roberts, J.M. The Penguin History of the World.  New York: Penguin Books Ltd, 1987.

Stearns, Peter et al.  World Civilizations: The Global Experience. Third Edition.  New York: Longman, 2001.

Woolf, Greg, ed.  Ancient Civilizations. London: Duncan Baird Publishers Ltd., 2005.

Wright, Ronald. A Short History of Progress.  Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2004.