Monday, February 25, 2013

Why Study History?

In a previous blog I answered the question “What is History?” and offered a few suggestions for explaining the dynamic nature of history to high school students. In today’s blog I want to answer the question “Why Study History?”

This question plagues all history teachers, and teachers must therefore find a way to prevent any confusion that students might have about the value of studying the past. My list of ten ways to answer the question is not definitive and may include more than some teachers want to cover. I hope, however, that my list serves as a good starting point to help teachers develop their own answer to the question. 

10 Reasons to Study History

1. Studying history provides an opportunity to develop basic academic skills (reading, writing, and analytical thinking).
In the “real” world we may rarely need to know the details of how George Washington persuaded the Senate to ratify Jay’s Treaty or how Andrew Jackson destroyed the Bank of the United States. However, we will always need to know how to read, write, and think. Regardless of what we decide to do with our lives, developing basic academic skills is vital to our success in an information economy.

2. History helps us better understand the world in which we live.
We live in a diverse and complex world, and all of us need to understand that world in order to survive. One of the best ways to understand our world is to understand its history, an understanding that is vital not only to our own personal happiness, but also the health of our society.

3. History helps us understand human beings and, in the process, understand ourselves as individuals.

In many ways history is a study of human nature and can help us identify human failures and successes.  Since all of us must live with both the vulgarity and the nobility of human existence, we should understand that studying people from the past is one of the best ways to prepare ourselves to live with other human beings, at both their best and their worst.

4. History helps us understand people who are different from us.
Learning to think historically requires that we learn to avoid presentism. That is, we learn to study the past by minimizing the biases of the present. To understand people from the eighteenth century we must be able to put ourselves in their world, knowing only what they knew. If we develop this skill successfully we will then be able to understand people from five hundred years ago or two thousand years ago. We will also be able to understand people in modern times who live on the other side of town or the other side of the world. 

Cicero (106-43 BCE)
5. History allows us to gain perspective and learn to see a bigger picture.
History helps us leave the confines of our own environment and see ourselves as a product of thousands of years of history. As the Roman philosopher and statesman Cicero stated, “To be ignorant of what happened before you were born is to be forever a child.”

6. History can inspire us.
Any human being might eventually face a dark night of the soul. Most people, at one time or another, need a little inspiration, and what better place to look for inspiration than to dig into the past. History is full of heroic individuals who found something within themselves that helped them overcome tremendous obstacles. We can therefore study history, in part, to learn about inspirational people and their triumphs. We can use history to guide us and help us find the strength and wisdom to deal with life’s hardships.

7. History can provide us with a reason for being — it can give meaning to our lives.
All of us need a reason for living, a higher purpose to our lives. Are we here primarily to help others or explore new frontiers? Are we here to create and bring beauty into the world? To what extent should we define our lives by our emotional and spiritual development? Is it enough to define our lives by hedonistic desires? All these questions have been dealt with by people who came before us and will help us in modern times find our own answers.

8. History can help us feel a sense of connection.
If we consider that an average life span is seventy-five years, it was only two lifetimes ago that it was 1863, and Abraham Lincoln was fighting the Civil War. Only three lifetimes ago it was 1788 and George Washington had not yet been elected president. In fact, only three lifetimes ago the U.S. Constitution had just been written and was in the process of being ratified by specially-elected state conventions. History helps us understand how closely we are connected to the past.

9. History is entertaining and fun.

History is full of drama, suspense, romance, tragedy, and comedy. If we let the facts speak for themselves, we cannot help but find entertainment in stories from the past.

10. History allows us to dream and wonder — it gives us an opportunity to imagine a better future.
History leads us to a place where we better understand each other and the world we live in. This understanding can help us then imagine a better way to live and give us the ability to pursue our dreams while staying grounded in our knowledge of the past.

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