Over the years, many students have uttered the phrase, “Why do I need to learn this? I’m never gonna use it.” Many educators have chagrined at that shortsighted statement, as well. It can easily be applied to just about any subject. Why study mathematics if we’re not all going to be mathematicians? Why study English if most of us will never write a Pulitzer Prize-winning book? Why study science if we’re not all aspiring to be Einstein or Hawking? Why study history if it’s just about a bunch of people who have been dead for decades or centuries? What use does knowledge about our past have for us in the present? To provide an answer to that last question: a lot, actually. However, not in the way some may think.
History, and more broadly social studies (government, economics, geography, sociology) is such a vast and multidisciplinary field that it would be difficult to find a single person that is an expert in all aspects of it. Even looking at the subject of history, there are numerous sub-fields such as world history, U.S. history, European history, economic history, geographical history, political history, biographical history, ancient history, modern history, aviation history, maritime history, military history, etc. The list goes on. A professional historian could spend their entire career studying just one of those sub-fields with a specific focus on a particular group, place, or series of events, and still not know all there is to know. I seriously doubt there is a historian out there that knows every single date, person, place, thing, and event that occurred in all of recorded history throughout the entire world. If you find one, let me know. The field of history is very much comparable to a vast ocean of facts with undiscovered depths which become deeper and darker with every passing moment and is forever changing. It would be impossible to drink up the entire ocean of history, for it is too large and too salty.
So taking us back to the previous question of the applicability of history to our times, what are some common reasons for the study of history?
*Note: the following will be paraphrased from the conclusion of Historians’ Fallacies by David Hackett Fischer.
“Because it’s fun!”
Sure, history can be fun. I like to think of history in terms of cinema genres. History has everything you could ever want! It has drama, suspense, mystery, romance, action, comedy, horror, sports, and even some things that probably qualify as supernatural and science fiction. All things which my life is lacking in.
However, to the average student slogging their way through their history textbook and filling their brains with a bunch of mundane and decontextualized information, history is anything but fun. I would know because I was asleep in my high school Western Civilization and IB U.S. history classes.
As David Fischer (1970) wrote:
The joys of history are tempered by the heavy labor which research and writing necessarily entail, and by the pain and suffering which suffuses so much of our past. If the doing of history is to be defended by the fact that some historians are happy in their work, then its mass appeal is likely to be as broad as flagellation. In all seriousness, there is something obscene in an argument which justifies the pedagogic torture inflicted upon millions of helpless children, year after year, on the grounds that it is jolly good fun for the torturer.(p. 310)
Sure, history can be fun, if you’re into that sort of thing.
“Because it’s there!”
Some of us are striving to alleviate intellectual stagnation because we have nothing better to do with ourselves. Much like George Mallory said of his reason for climbing Mt. Everest, we should study history just because it’s there. Fischer (1970) writes:
This way of thinking is a tribute to the tenacity of man’s will but not to the power of his intellect. If historical inquiry is merely to be a moral equivalent to mountaineering for the diversion of chairborne adventurers, then historiography itself becomes merely a hobbyhorse for the amusement of overeducated unemployables.(p. 310)
Apparently intellectual pursuits have no deeper meaning to the average person who chooses to pursue them merely on a whim. To be sure, some history books are incredible in their ability to induce coma, and reading them is comparable to slogging our way up an intellectual butte. But at the end of the day, if it comes to researching something that feels like it’s inducing hypoxia, then I’d much rather throw myself off the precipice at the expense of becoming the next Edmund Hillary.
“There are certain discrete facts that everyone needs to know!”
This is one of those lies you were told in elementary school, along with those other lies you were indoctrinated in. For example, we all know that Christopher Columbus was the first to sail to North America in 1492, but in reality, there is evidence to suggest that Leif Erikson probably did it almost 500 years prior. So much for heroes.
Honestly, knowing certain discrete facts probably keeps you from embarrassing yourself at cocktail parties, but whittling history down to a random assortment of easily digestible facts simply caters to the lowest common denominator. Fischer (1970) writes, “Facts of this sort, taught in this way, are merely empty emblems of erudition which certify that certain formal pedagogical requirements have been duly met” (p. 311).
When we dig deeper, we find that history is really about stories and our interpretations of them, rather than a bunch of facts and dates.
“It’s an outlet for creative urge!”
Some people find beauty in just about anything. I’ve had many urges to study or write history, but I can’t say I find it to be an artistic endeavor. It does seem odd to try and justify history on the pretense that it’s sustained by some burning desire to uncover some profound joy in research the way Bob Ross teaches the joy of painting landscapes.
Fischer (1970) writes, “The number of modern histories which are worth reading on any imaginable aesthetic standard can be reckoned on the fingers of one hand” (p. 311-12).
Conal Furay and Michael Salevouris (2000) argue differently in that one of the main uses of history is that of good storytelling. Well-written history also functions as good literature and can be more engaging than some works of fiction (p. 7).
While I can’t say I’ve considered any history I’ve read to be on the level of Shakespeare, some are indeed entertaining.
“The research will be useful to somebody in the future!”
Maybe so, but the odds seem to be against you since you’re treating your work as a proverbial message in a bottle and casting it into the vast sea for somebody to hopefully find. Fischer (1970) notes that “the odds of us forming a science of history by reaching into the grab bag of past events and hauling out one random project after another are remote” (p.312).
As I mentioned before, a lot of history is really about how we interpret the story. If we’re flinging our research around like the golden record on the Voyager probes, then we probably want to ensure it has some purpose in mind. Like the Voyager probes, maybe somebody will find a use for it in a bazillion years.
So let’s ask ourselves the ultimate question: WHY STUDY HISTORY?
Although it may seem counter-intuitive, the genuine applications of historical research are not those superficial reasons which we’ve gone through, but rather that the act of studying history can teach us a way of thinking. To summarize Fischer (1970), learning history is useful because:
- It can clarify contexts in which contemporary problems exist.
- It can be useful for forecasting future events, establishing trends, and prospects.
- It can be useful for the refinement of theoretical knowledge, of an “if, then” sort.
- It can help us find out who we are as a people.
MOST IMPORTANTLY –
- It can teach you how to think historically (i.e. critically).
Yes, I’m asking you to actually do some thinking. Everyone questions things that actually happened – questions that involve the logic of inquiry, explanation, and argument. Even if you’re not questioning the causes of WWI, the anatomy of a revolution, or the motives of Louis XIV, you still ask questions about everyday events (Fischer, 1970, p. 315-316).
Furay and Salevouris (2000) similarly contend that history:
- provides us with a sense of our identity given that we’re each a product of our culture, society, and experiences.
- helps us to understand present issues by providing relevant background information.
- enables us to understand humankind, its institutions, and the human condition since those are all a part of the historical record.
- provides a background for many other disciplines. Social sciences are heavily indebted to historical writing.
- teaches critical communications skills with regard to examining, evaluating, and interpreting evidence. It also teaches us how to present our evidence in a logical and systematic fashion.
They further point out that while history provides many lessons from the past which are applicable to the present, the danger comes from stretching the analogy too far in abusing historical parallels. Thus, good history can correct poor historical analogies and parallels (p. 6 – 7).
Finally, they observe that history can help us to develop tolerance and open-mindedness by exposing us to times or cultures when things were different. Thus, we can rid ourselves of some parochialism (p. 6).
David Thelen and Roy Rosenzweig note that most people engage with history on a personal level as it helps to define their identity or experience. The paradox is that people are uninterested in anything that does not relate to them personally, so the formal study of history to them is boring (as cited in Shopes, 2002, p. 5).
So we could say that, on the surface, history is not very applicable to everyday life…not the straight facts anyway. What is applicable are the study skills that it develops. This is why your history teacher is so adamant about the sources in your bibliography. This is why primary sources are preferred over secondary and tertiary sources. This is why striving for intellectual rigor and understanding basic source critique and analysis can help us sift through the mountains of fake news and decontextualized information that’s traveling around the internet and growing larger with each passing year. In short, it’s not the history itself, it’s the methodology that’s useful to us. That’s why we should study history.
Fischer, D.H. (1970). Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought. New York, NY: Harper & Row Publishers.
Furay, C., & Salevouris, M.J. (2000). The Methods and Skills of History (2nd. ed.). Harlan Davidson.
Shopes, L. (2002, February). What is Oral History?. History Matters: The U.S. Survey Course on the Web. http://historymatters.gmu.edu/mse/oral/index.html.