Why Study History?

I. Why Study History?

  • History is not a blueprint but does provide understanding.
  • History is not a blueprint for the future but it is a means of understanding the past and present. Through the study of history we can develop a feel for the way in which society will develop in the future. History helps one to understand the immense complexity of our world and therefore enables one to cope with the problems and possibilities of the present and future.
  • History provides us with a sense of identity.
  • People need to develop a sense of their collective past. Events in the past have made us what we are today. In one sense history is the only thing that is real. The way in which people identify and interact with one another is by and large a consequence of history, which shapes and conditions individuals and societies whether they fully understand it or not.
  • History is a bridge to other disciplines.
  • In order to understand the other humanities and the sciences one needs an historical overview. Writers, artists, scientists, politicians and everyday people all are conditioned by the historical milieu in which they lived. Historical knowledge is a prerequisite for fully understanding any other type of knowledge and for understanding why events happened as they did.
  • History is magister vitae, "teacher of life."
  • History prepares us to live more humanely in the present and to meet the challenges of the future because it provides us with understanding of the human condition. History is a means of disseminating and comprehending the wisdom and folly of our forbears.
  • History is fun.
  • History fulfills our desire to know and understand ourselves and our ancestors. History allows one to vicariously experience countless situations and conditions, which stimulates the imagination and creativity.
II. Is History true?

  • There is both objective and subjective understanding in history.
  • Most people can agree on the framework of history, that is the names, dates, places, people and events that have determined the past. Few people, for instance, would challenge the veracity of the old school rhyme "Columbus sailed the ocean blue in fourteen hundred and ninety-two." The problem is not with "Columbus" or "1492" but with "sailed" (not with the fact that Columbus did sail but why he sailed). Historical disagreement usually revolves around causation or motivation. Some see Columbus as a courageous harbinger of a new world others see him as an evil, genocidial imperialist.
  • Historical interpretation is dependent upon one's own background and perspective.
  • How a person understands the past is partially determined by one's background, upbringing, biases, and prejudices. But this doesn't mean that history is unknowable. Historical understanding is analagous to the debates that sports enthusiasts often have over what team was the all-time best or who was the greatest player ever? The basic "facts," i.e. the points scored, batting averages, yards gained, wins and losses etc. are known, but individuals often disagree over what those "facts" mean. Still a basic consensus is often reached (Babe Ruth and Henry Aaron are the two greatest home run hitters ever) and the same is possible in history.