Why Study History

Why Study History?
Intro Scenario:
Students close eyes
♦ Imagine yourself on a beach on a sunny day. Waves lapping on shore. Boats tied
up to a dock. Children splashing about in water and building sand castles. You
are living in the present and enjoying the warmth of the sun.
♦ After a while you get bored and hot. You consider the future. What do you want
to do? –Ask students what they would do next. Note their decisions are based on
knowledge of the past. The present, future and past are always linked together
and always with us.
♦ As the sun goes down you think about getting home. Ask how they decide about
this. Knowing the answer is comforting and prevents our becoming anxious.
♦ You trip and knock yourself unconscious. Waking, you remember nothing of the
past. Why are you on a beach? Where is your home? How will you get there?
Its getting dark and you are frightened. You begin to panic. Without knowledge
of the past, how will you cope with the future?
♦ The lesson from all if this is that studying the past helps us cope with the present
and plan for the future. This is especially important in democracies, where we are
all involved in decision-making. (Read Huble comment to Milan Kundera). We
all need past knowledge – both from our own, personal, experience and from
historical study. It is all we have to guide us into the future.
Yet History Gives Us Even More:
♦ We already noted that studying History gives us knowledge. – of our way of life
and how it came into being – of why the world is the way it is and how it came to
be – of the interconnectedness of people and of nations. Historian William
Appleman Williams was looking for something to do after he was discharged
from the US navy at the end of World War II. He was offered jobs by GE and
Boeing, but he had an interest in continuing his education. He went to university
and, naturally, chose to take a History degree. Why? “It was history because I
really did want to try and make some sense of what the hell was going on…I
figured from my education, my reading, that history was the best way to figure
out the way the world ticked…what the hell had been going on in the past and the
way the world was going. We also note that History is not given, but is created.
The past is not static and fixed; it is dynamic and ever-changing in that we come
to it with new questions to be answered. These questions determine where we
look and what we might discover. – Use Carr quote about fishing.
♦ It also leads to our developing skills. As students of History we must develop our
critical abilities – to read not just what is said, but what is meant or what can be
inferred. Along with this comes the need to see and to listen with the same
critical bent. We also learn to draw conclusions from a variety of presenting
evidence. Most importantly it helps us to form important questions – to be more
than just a passive observer of the world but to seek answers to personal and
societal problems. Along the way we develop critical communications skills –
learning to write and speak persuasively. Some will employ technologies
effectively to get their points across.
♦ The study of History helps us to form attitudes that will help us in life. We see
that we have a debt of gratitude to others – to past individuals and civilizations. It
helps us see beyond ourselves and to rightly note that we are all part of something
much larger than just our own personal stories. History is about us, not just me.
To study history it is essential that one steps outside one’s own head and tries to
enter the thought processes of others. The eternal question is why? Why? Why?
Why Hitler? Why Iraq? Why does Osama bin Laden hate America? We can’t
answer these without trying to understand others and what made them tick. Some
of us will look for inspiration to great individuals in the past. Others will see our
group identities affirmed.
♦ For those who are simply interested in getting ahead, the study of History is a
particularly effective means of doing so. History informs us about all areas of
knowledge. The writing and oral skills developed during its study are the most
important transferable skills that you can apply to any occupation. Research skills
are also important in most jobs. If you don’t have the information to answer a
pressing question, how will you find it? People with degrees in history are
everywhere around us – from novelists like Salman Rushdie, to comedians and
film & TV personalities like Michael Palin to American Presidents, like Richard
Nixon. Businessmen, scientists and engineers all profit from the wider
perspectives that history provides. Would we want any decision maker to leap
into the dark without being informed by the past?
♦ Lastly and most importantly, as Peter Stearns notes, “it harbours beauty.” No
fiction can be as rich and varied as the study of reality. It is interesting in itself.
Whether we look at our own family histories, at the biographies of famous people,
or at how people lived in other times and places, it is an infinite storehouse of
fascinating information that we will never tire at investigating.
In the words of Peter Stearns:
Why study history? The answer is because we virtually must, to gain access to
the laboratory of human experience. When we study it reasonably well, and so
acquire some usable habits of mind, as well as some basic data about the foreces
that affect our own lives, we emerge with relevant skills and an enhanced capacity
for informed citizenship, critical thinking, and simple awareness. The uses of
history are varied. Studying history can help us develop some literally “salable”
skills, but its study must not be pinned down to the narrowest utilitarianism.
Some history – that confined to function beyond childhood. Some history
depends on personal taste, where one finds beauty, the joy of discovery, or
intellectual challenge. Between the inescapable minimum and the pleasure of
deep commitment comes the history that, through cumulative skill in interpreting
the unfolding human record, provides a real grasp of how the world works.