Why History Is Important

I’ve heard that question too many times. The students in my undergraduate classes— and even some of my friends—didn’t see the relevance of history to their lives or majors.

“But history is all around you!”

What would sports medicine be without medicine? What would music be without Beethoven? In every subject that my students threw at me, there was a tie to history. Because there is history behind everything.

In fact, the question itself is a relatively recent phenomenon. Many cultures throughout time have not questioned the study of history; it was simply part of the rounded curriculum. Ancient cultures devoted a significant amount of time and effort to study history, believing that the past helps a child understand who he or she is as a person. It also helped them to understand their place in society and how to become contributing members. In fact, many courts employed historians to record the activities of the monarch and his/her reign, and it was a very prestigious position.

Everywhere you look, there is history. From old houses to haunted asylums, from your great-grandmother’s antique dresser to family photos, and from the transition from miles of farmland to miles of skyscrapers, there is history: alive, breathing, and waiting to be heard.

Aside from that, there are a lot of great reasons that we should study history and encourage schools to continue to teach history to our children.

Who are you without your memories?

How would you describe yourself to someone who never met you?

Time reveals many things: what you like, who you prefer to spend time with, and where you’ve been in our lives. Your personal history shapes who you are, from your beliefs to your tastes in food. These individual experiences generate a highly unique story that – although it may share similarities with other individuals – is entirely your own.

Combine these individual stories – in fact, combine hundreds or thousands of them – and you begin to have what we call “collective memory.” It’s the story of a group of people, usually bound by common characteristics or, more frequently, a common past.

History is a form of collective memory; usually, one that has been intensively studied and refined to ensure that the stories form a true narrative of events, usually supplemented by individual stories. Thus, history is the story of us and can teach us who we are, where we come from, and perhaps reveal where we want to go.

History also gives us an asset not found in more systematic subjects (like science): time. Time reveals things we may not have seen in the present: solutions to problems, curses that were really blessings in disguise, or trivial matters that fundamentally altered the course of major events. History also keeps us from oversimplifying our experiences, showing us that every decision we make is a culmination of our past decisions and that there are always multiple factors—some obvious, some not—at work.

On a more personal level, history helps us understand our “risk factors.” This ranges from our medical history to long-standing family problems (such as depression or alcoholism) to our heritage and how that heritage fits in the global community. To understand our own family’s traditions and customs, we must look to where we came from and who those people were. To understand how to avoid problems that our family faces, we have to look at why those problems started in the first place. And this helps us relate to other people, by showing us how our different experiences can result in people who believe entirely different things. It’s like comparing Southerners to Californians in the U.S. There’s two vastly different lifestyles present within the same country, but it’s because of who came here and where they settled. Understanding that helps you to understanding—and even accepting—differences.

In addition to helping us understand who we are, history helps us become informed, active citizens of the world (and of our home countries). As I’ve stated before, history is “collective memory.” It shows us who we are as a group: our past, our values, and our hopes. Knowing this collective memory is a key to becoming an informed citizen.

And being an informed citizen is essential to a democratic society. It encourages people to actively participate and debate, helping to refine our core beliefs and, possibly, challenge old beliefs that are no longer relevant. As Etieene Gilson states, “History is the only laboratory we have in which to test the consequences of thought.”

In this way, history helps us to understand current events. Why was there a war in Iraq and why did it matter to countries on the other side of the world? Why did such a regime ever exist, and should it have been allowed to exist for so long? We must look to history—and into how religion, politics, environment, and colonialism shaped the Middle East—to understand why such events are accepted and why people believe that religion and politics should mix.

History also helps teach us how to look at multiple solutions to any problem by comparing multiple versions of events. If there were two solutions to a problem, how would you choose? You would likely base your choice on past experiences or the advice of others based on their past experiences.

Thus, history helps us learn how to compare multiple versions of the same event or multiple solutions to a problem. Such a skill is valuable in a variety of fields, including human resources, conflict resolution, statesmanship, and any other activity that requires considering multiple points of view. This skill also helps increase our ability to empathize with other individuals, because we learn that no two people experience the same event in the exact same way.

History also teaches us that history itself is subjective. It was often written by the “winners,” with other accounts either hidden or lost to time. It shows us that multiple accounts of the same events can exist – like the Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls. It also shows us that when there aren’t multiple accounts, we have to rely on oral histories or recognize that the version of events we have before us may not be the full story – like in the case of Native American societies and European colonialism.

Good history classes, therefore, require more than recitation. They require a grounding in historical methods: how to tell what is relevant and what is not, how to recognize biases of an author in his/her works, and how to piece together multiple accounts to make a “whole story” of what really transpired.

Additionally, history teaches us values. Through history, children learn that people throughout the world are—and have always been—different and yet strikingly similar. We have lived and believed in different ways, but we all have the same essential needs.

Our version of history also helps shape our values. Children raised on an American version of history (which is decidedly Eurocentric) have values that don’t always align with Eastern values: thus, we often can’t understand why others may value history so much more than we do (as Native Americans do by preserving their myths and pasts in oral history, for example). Children raised in a communist state may grow up believing that the communist regime is much better than any other past political rule, because that is what the communist state dictates (such as Soviet Russia), and this profoundly affects how children view other world cultures and political systems like democracy.

Such values are also evident in our myths and legends. Many children are told Aesop’s Fables and other stories. These stories come to us from the past, as both a warning and a guide to moral behavior. Typically, these stories are based on historical characters. The legend of King Arthur—both a means of escapism and a means of instilling moral code—is one example.

Society is thus shaped by what came before. In order to understand how we have become what we are, and why we differ from others, it’s important to look to history. Very few events are truly “global” — and understanding the “non-global” is a key to understanding why I like Barbie but a Middle Eastern nation would ban it.

Finally, history teaches students many skills that can help them in their chosen fields and in their general lives. These skills include:

  1. Reading. Specifically, reading from different time periods. We didn’t always talk this way, you know. Opening your mind to new uses of language can be a good skill, both in learning foreign languages and for those law students who seem to study archaic versions of wording sentences so that no one can understand them.
  2. Writing. Specifically, good writing. How to not just repeat what someone else said, but to analyze information from multiple sources and come up with your own conclusions.
  3. Being able to form your own opinions and effectively argue those opinions with others. Anyone can say “yes” or “no.” Most people can’t answer “why.” For example, anyone can say that aliens have visited Earth before. However, where’s the proof? And could that “proof” point to other conclusions?
  4. Research. In history class, you will research – primary and secondary sources. You will learn how to determine whether a source is reliable or not, as well as how to find sources within sources.
  5. Quantitative analysis. Yes, history has numbers. There are not many historians out there who will admit to it, but spreadsheets help us in analyzing data as much as they help economists. We look for patterns: in population, in desertions during war, and in environmental factors, to name a few. These patterns help us find out why things happened. So yes, there are numbers.
  6. Qualitative analysis. How do we know that the “facts” of history are facts? Could they just be someone’s opinion? If so, how do we find the facts?
  7. Taking life with a grain of salt. When you combine the above skills, you learn that not everything is as it seems. History is written by the victors, so history class will teach you that what the textbook says, and what really happened, could be two drastically different things. Or we may never know, and you have to accept that.

Finally, because it’s fun. History, despite popular belief, can be fun! It’s full of mysteries, ghosts, and adventures. Take a look around at the shelves of your local bookstore and you’ll find some interesting tidbits. There’s always another story emerging, another ghost from the past rearing up to shed light on something unexpected.

And there’s history in everything: sex, drugs, music, skateboarding, surfing, video games…the list goes on. Give me a topic and there will be a history behind it, somewhere. The funnest part is digging it up. You never know what you will find.