Studying a subject that you feel is pointless is never a fun or easy task. It can be hard enough studying a subject that you enjoy if the material is complicated, but when you’re not even interested in the topics or concepts involved, how can you expect to really absorb the information in a meaningful way? If you’re studying history, whether you like it or not, asking yourself the question why is history important is actually a very good first step. It’s important to understand the purpose of the subjects we study, in both broad and personal terms, especially with something as heavy as history.
In this guide, we’ll explore a few reasons why history is important to learn, study, and be aware of. Hopefully you’ll find something here that will spark your interest, make you reconsider a stance, or get you thinking about how history can be important to you. Maybe you’re not the one uninterested in history, and are trying instead to get your students to feel engaged. Check out this course on how to motivate unmotivated students for some tips.
What do we mean by history?
Before we even begin, let’s take a step back and ask ourselves what we even mean when we say history. Well, according to the dictionary definition, history is the study of past events, more specifically connected to human affairs. Academically, history is an umbrella term that encompasses so many different fields of study.
What each and one of them have in common is the goal of tracing narratives of past events, and analyzing the patterns that emerge as a way to provide perspective on our past. A historian of the American Civil Rights movement might focus on the cause and effects a long history of slavery in the United States had on the racially marginalized in the years after. A historian of imperial Japan might focus on the role of the Japanese during World War II. There are many different kinds of history though, and the borders are not limited by country: there is art history, military history, religious history, and so on. Don’t know where to begin? Learning to learn can be tough – check out this course on how to get motivated to learn.
How you choose to use history is another story, and all depends on what you find most important about it. Which brings us back to our original question: why is history important? Let’s find out below.
1. History grounds us in our roots.
History is an important and interesting field of study because it grounds each and every one of us in our roots. Ethnic, national, and cultural identity are all very real things, and studying the history of our hometowns, home countries, and related regions can give us a deeper, more meaningful glimpse into our ancestral pasts, and how we got to where we are today. Many people feel like they need a sense of cultural belonging, which is something that studying your roots and embracing both the traditional and modern variants of your culture can provide. One of the best parts about embracing an identity is sharing the qualities, traditions, and philosophies of that culture with others, and celebrating the overlaps and differences.
Studying history can also give us insight into why our culture does certain things, and how the past has shaped it into what we know now. This relates directly to our next reason why history is important, which is…
2. History helps us understand change.
History is a continuous documentation of our past, including great triumphs and grave mistakes. It’s a timeline rife with victories and tragedies, with one thing always leading to the next. By examining chains of events, and how one small occurrence can spark countless, invaluable incidents or one devastatingly large one, we begin to understand the nature of change.
Take for the story of World War I. Over 37 million people died as a result of this conflict, and it all began because a Yugoslav nationalist assassinated the archduke of Austria in June 1914. Of course, other things factored in, such as rising imperialist tensions, but the fact that this one event could jump-start a war that would affect so many is fascinating, devastating, and very important to understand.
One small thing (in the grand scheme of things) can leave such destruction in its wake. It makes you ponder the power that a few good deeds can have instead.
3. History reveals patterns in our pasts.
Another way this lesson of change is important is by helping us understand the patterns that arise in our shared timeline. History repeats itself, as the saying goes. We have made so many mistakes throughout our history, and yet we are always making the same exact ones. Why do you think that is? Maybe there aren’t enough people interested in studying history, and really grasping its importance?
Even if the powers that be continue to make the same mistakes (in fact, because they do), it is so important that people who have the right to learn and school themselves study history. Being aware of the politics and the human nature behind historical events can help us draw parallels between what happened then, and what is happening now, and what we can possibly do to prevent negative outcomes in the future. Ghandi said, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” We can only do that by studying history, which leads us into the next point…
4. History provides a foundation for activism.
Only by having a firm grasp on history can we tackle the kinds of political or social reform that we want to see happen. If we don’t understand the long, sprawling history behind the issues we are fighting for or against, then how can anyone expect to have a leg up against their political opponent?
History gives us insight into how certain laws and societal standards came to be, the effects that they have had on what kinds of people, and the efforts taken by folks in the past who have fought for exactly the thing you are today. With this knowledge, we can cite the relevant information we need to highlight the problem, better express why it is a harmful issue that needs addressing, and try new things that have not been done before to combat it. This is the foundation of activism and reform.
They say knowledge is power, and when it comes to history, it’s one of the best powers you can have for being the change! Wield it proudly. If you still need that extra push to feel motivated, get some help with this course on the value of learning.
5. History makes us more empathetic.
Launching off the idea of history providing a framework by which activism can flourish, it also provides a rather strong foundation for empathy across cultures. Fear and hatred for others is usually caused by ignorance. We’re scared of the things that we don’t understand. History has the potential to break down those boundaries by offering us insight into entire worlds that would otherwise be foreign to us, unless we’d made the effort to seek them out.
This ties in a bit with the activism thing, actually! Everyone knows that various media outlets have their own agendas, trying to push certain ideas on us and passing them as fact. If we have a grasp on history, then we have the power to question what the people in charge claim is true. For instance, the American news media only ever focuses on the Middle East when it’s talking about war and conflict. If we don’t know anything about the rich and diverse history and geography of the Middle East, then we’d probably just shrug and nod at what the news tells us. But someone who has studied the Middle East might have a deeper and more empathetic outlook on the cultures that exist there.
What sounds better to you? Believing everything you hear, or having the power to criticize and empathize on your own accord?
6. History can inspire us to learn more.
Finally, history is important because it is a long, nearly endless collection of stories, lessons, and philosophies to learn. There is bound to be something meaningful in history for everyone, whether that be a source of identity, a feeling of hope or inspiration, or even something like an idea for your next book or movie! The possibilities are endless when it comes to history, and there’s no shortage of inspiration for whatever your purpose: political, personal, creative, etc.
What’s also awesome about history is the way it broadens our horizons. It’s almost impossible to learn about one historical event without having dozens of questions about related concepts. Study the Great Depression, and you might catch a glimpse of Dorothea Lange’s infamous Migrant Mother photograph from 1936. Look up Lange, and you might learn a thing or two about the early developments of documentary photography. Look that up, and you’ll find yourself some good reading on the history of photojournalism. Or maybe you end up straying from photography, and discover the history of realist painters in America. (Sound interesting? Learn a thing or two about art history in this course on the Renaissance to modern day, or go even further back to prehistoric art with this course.)
Like I said, it can go anywhere, and there is something in there for absolutely anybody. If you’re having trouble getting excited for history, consider focusing on an era, a culture, or a topic that you already enjoy. If that’s not possible, just think about the value of what you’re learning, and realize that while you might not see it now, it will be worth it in the long run.
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