History Helps Us Understand Change

Why Study History?
By Peter N. Stearns
Any subject of study needs justification: its supporters should be able to explain why it is worth attention. Most
subjects attract a few people who simply like the information, but those who are less interested in a topic need to
know what the purpose is.
History, perhaps the most important of the social sciences, is the study of the past, but at its core, is a study of
people. People live in the present. They plan for and worry about the future Given all the demands of living in
the present, why bother with what has been? Why do most schools insist students learn a good bit of history?
Historians do not perform heart transplants, improve highway design, or arrest criminals. When Americans
expect education to be useful, the usefulness of history may be less obvious than science.
However, history is in fact very valuable. While history can provide inspiration and beauty in our world, the
real usefulness of the subject rests on three important ideas: history helps us understand ourselves and the people
or places around us; history helps us understand change and how current traits came to be; and history helps us
build the skills to think.
History Helps Us Understand Ourselves and the People & Places Around Us
History offers a storehouse of information about
how people and societies behave. Understanding
people and societies is difficult but relying only on
present-day observations or scientific data
needlessly limit our efforts. In fact the basis of all
learning and analysis is the study of history and
looking to past conditions or research. How can we
study war if the nation is at peace—unless we use
historical materials? History serves as our
laboratory and data in an important effort to figure
out the workings of democratic elections, the
impacts of church missionaries, or the weaknesses
of military alliances. History also helps provide
identity, and this is unquestionably one of the
reasons all modern nations encourage its teaching in
some form. Families, ethnic groups, and countries
all find unity, common purpose, and identity based
on past experiences. For many Americans, studying
the history of how one's own family came to this
country is the most obvious use of history because it
explains our roots. Unquestionably, we need history
in order to know ourselves and understand the world
around us.
emotional stories of battles won and lost. These
stories aren’t just beautiful for the sake of beauty;
history helps shape our morals. The past allows us
to witness individuals make difficult decisions—a
study not only of heroes but also of ordinary people
who show courage and hard work. The most
common reason for including the beautiful stories of
history in school is its ability to support good
citizenship. In an extreme form this push for good
citizenship promotes national identity and loyalty
through vivid stories and lessons in individual
success while ignoring personal flaws and national
hardships. Yet, the story of a country does drive
home an understanding of national values and a
commitment to national loyalty. In addition to
helping us understand ourselves, the stories of
history help inspire us and learn our personal morals
as well as cultural values.
Thus, history must serve as our most important
evidence in the search to figure out why humans
behave as we do in society. People need some sense
of how societies work simply to run their own lives.
This, fundamentally, is why we learn history.
Beyond the wealth of information, it is important to
remember that history is beautiful – telling the
History Helps Us Understand Change
History provides the only set of materials available
to study how the human condition came to be what it
is today. As a result, history must focus on how
things change, including the factors that are causing
change around us today. The past causes the present,
and so the future. Any time we try to know why
something happened—whether a shift in political
party dominance in the American Congress, a major
change in the teenage suicide rate, or a war in Iraq—
we have to look for factors that took shape earlier.
Only through history can we grasp how things
change; only through history can we begin to
comprehend the factors that cause change; and only
through history can we understand the elements of
life that remain the same in the face of change.
The importance of history in explaining change in
human behavior is not merely theory. Take an
important human phenomenon such as alcoholism.
Through scientific experiments specific genes have
been identified that seem to make individuals more
likely to become addicted to alcohol. This is a
notable advance. But alcoholism has a history: rates
of alcoholism have risen and fallen, and they have
varied from one group to the next. Attitudes and
policies about alcoholism have also changed and
varied. History is key to understanding why such
changes occur. Historians have in fact greatly
contributed in recent decades to our understanding
of changes in alcoholism and the problem of
addiction in society. Another example is the concern
about low voter turnout in American politics. What
were turnouts in the past? When did lower voter
turnout begin? Once we determine when the trend
began, we can try to identify the factors that
combined to set the trend in motion. Looking to the
past can help us begin to understand the problem we
face today.
Here, our ability to study change and how current
conditions came to be, is one of the reasons that
many people become interested in history and why
our society encourages the study of history as a
major subject in schools.
History Helps Us Learn to Think
The skills taught in history are the skills that help
students understand English, science, and math in
greater depth as well as become more successful in
their careers. Through finding information, judging
the usefulness of information, and considering
different points of view, students are picking up
skills that are key in every other part of life.
History helps people use information more
successfully. Historians are flooded with
information (books, pictures, statistics,
archaeological remains, personal observations, and
interviews). Learning how to combine different
kinds of evidence develops the ability to make clear
arguments and support those arguments.
Additionally, social scientists must determine what
pieces of information will give the most accurate
picture of a topic. For example, learning how to
interpret the statements of past political leaders helps
us separate factual and self-serving statements made
by present-day political leaders. Finally, once the
loads of information are used to create arguments,
students must wrestle with differing conclusions. It
is a difficult and inexact science to narrow so much
information down to a single argument; one that
often leads to different conclusions or different
versions of history. Looking at these different
interpretations of the same information can help
teach students to see issues from different points of
Because one purpose of history is to help us
understand change, students must also learn the
skills to see change. The ability is compare and
contrast two time periods is at the root of
understanding change. But still, it is not enough to
look for similarities and differences from one year to
the next to find change. Students must also decide
how important the change is and what caused the
change to occur.
Ultimately, the skills that history teaches help to
create good businesspeople and professionals.
Although there are lots of jobs for historians,
geographers, and psychologists, most people use
history’s skills in other careers. Employers often
seek students with the kinds of skills that history
promotes. The reasons are not hard to identify:
students of history have research skills, can judge
the usefulness of information, and see recognize
other points of view. But history doesn’t just help
students get jobs; it helps them advance in their
careers. In our uncertain economy, history is
necessary because it teaches skills that apply directly
to many careers