Why Study History?
One of the perennial questions asked by students in freshman history classes is “Why study history?” Here are a number of reasons to consider:
History Helps us to Understand Who we are
How can we understand who we are, if we do not know where we came from? Our past is our identity. Despite all our multiculturalism, the America that we live in today is very much rooted in Christian religion, in Roman government, in Greek culture, in German political values and a distinctly French sense of the importance of freedom. Understanding those historic cultures gives us a much better understanding of the American character.
History Helps us to Understand Other Peoples and Cultures
The past created the present. Let us take two specific examples. First: how can we understand the tensions between the Middle East and the Western world today unless we look back to the history of that tension? The Middle East and the West have conflicted in cultural values, religious perspectives and territorial ambitions since the seventh century – and those conflicts have been acted out on the battlefield on many, many occasions since then. Isn’t that history relevant to American intervention in Iraq today? Second: today, Japan has one of the highest suicide rates in the entire world. Why? The Western world is very uncomfortable with suicide and often finds itself wondering how such an unfathomable act could have become so common in another culture. At the heart of modern Japan’s suicide rates lies a feudal history that placed great value on honor and dignity, family priorities and reputation. Without history, this modern problem makes no sense. If we want to understand other cultures and their contrasting values, we need to understand their histories.
History Leads to Moral Contemplation
Studying history, we come into contact with many pivotal historical figures – people who changed the world with their dreams, ambitions, and callings. Saint Francis of Assisi. Adoph Hitler. Mahatma Ghandi. Charlemagne. Jesus. Ashoka the Philosopher King. Saint Ignatius of Loyola. Aristotle. King Herod. Kong Fuzi. History evidences the spectrum of human personalities with their good and bad values, providing us with human role models in which to emulate or distance ourselves. History illustrates the dire effects of corporate selfishness, or simple mistakes. Working through past moral dilemmas helps us to revaluate our own moral stances and understand why we believe what we believe.
Historical Study creates Good Citizens
Many people today refuse to believe that one person can make a difference. This is where history is critical. History offers us many examples of how the determination and generosity of one person saved lives, brought peace, cured diseases. History gives us the insight to realize that we cannot afford to be apathetic. What if Mother Teresa and her Missionaries of Charity simply hadn’t bothered with the poor? If Abraham Lincoln had succumbed to apathy, where would American race relations be today?
History is Fun
There is a good reason why Hollywood constantly exploits historical settings for movies such as Braveheart, The Patriot, Beowulf, Troy. History is full of wonderful stories of inspiring heroism and remarkable adventures. Why bother with Hollywood when you can study the stories themselves without the distraction of bad acting?
History is Good Job Training
Historical study teaches skills that are valuable in the work place. To achieve the goal of historical understanding, students are challenged to sharpen their logical, analystic and communication skills. Students are required to analyze complex developments, to synthesize material from numerous sources, and to express themselves clearly both orally and in writing. These skills are the basic skills of a wide variety of professions.