Why should we study history

Updated at 27 Oct 2022

You'll never be bored learning new things, even if you live to 100. The world is rich in knowledge, and you can access it all: from computer science and cryptocurrency to French literature or Spanish grammar. Why choose history?

Profiles of antique busts in a large antique book library

Many people learn history in high school, but they leave feeling that it is boring, irrelevant, or both. As we age, even if it's only a few years, we begin to understand the importance of the past.

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Why do we study history?

Because history is not static, we study it. Understanding the history of the past helps us understand and analyze the circumstances that somehow led to the current state of affairs. We can learn a lot from the past, draw vital conclusions and understand ourselves better.

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What does history have to do with our lives today?

In the past, events have caused the displacement of families and groups and changed the composition of the regions. This has often led to tensions and altered the structure of the region.

These events have created systems of government that have survived for generations. All of this affects every person who is alive today.

Consider the Great Depression as an example. It was one of the most challenging and impactful periods in American history.

The economic crisis left nearly 15 million people without work, and many families were forced to live in poverty, taking away their sense of security. Many of these people would feel insecure for the rest of their lives.

Presidents Rock or Mount Rushmore

The government needed to learn how to help. This effort led to Social Security and federal emergency relief programs.

It also funded unemployment aid efforts. Millions of Americans are now more secure because of these changes.

There are just a few examples of the many actions that have made life in society much more comfortable and stable. You will understand life better if you learn more about these and other past events.

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What can we learn from the past?

The history of the world teaches us things like:

  • Why do some societies succeed while others fail?
  • The reasons why humans are at war.
  • The positive impact of people on society.

ancient egyptian wall paintings

History is not a study of the lives of others. Although the people you are reading about lived many decades or even centuries ago, their decisions and actions directly affect the way we live today. Even though they may seem like dates on a calendar, these events have been pivotal points in the history of our societies.

"Historical knowledge can only be described as carefully and critically constructed collective memories." -William H. MacNeill (ex-president of the American Historical Association).

These stories are codified and built upon historical research. We learn about our past and how it led to the lives we lead.

It is the study of ourselves, of human beings and our place within a changing world. It is what allows us to understand our successes and failures. Without it, we could not continue building on the past without moving forward.

Spanish philosopher George Santayana once stated, "Those who can't remember the past are doomed to repeat it."

What can past events teach us about the future?

The past is the source of our present. The events that occurred long before our time created the modern world we live in today. Understanding these events is the only way to understand how and where we are going next.

History can help us understand the impact of change

History is filled with transitions that have changed the story of the world. You will learn more about the history that shaped our society today if you have a better understanding of it.

The American civil rights movement is an excellent example of how people can organize against oppressive systems. The fall of Rome shows you that even the most powerful societies can crumble. Learn more about what causes that.

Learning about the history of different periods and the events that led to them is a great way to predict what will happen in the future.

Learn from our past mistakes

History helps us to understand the world and its workings. Studying a war reveals more about the causes and consequences of conflict. Learn about the dilemmas faced by world leaders and how they respond, as well as whether or not those decisions result in better outcomes.

Historical research shows the warning signs of many disasters, including genocide and climate inaction. These patterns will help you become a better citizen and take effective action.

We gain context for our human experience

Most Americans had never experienced a global pandemic before 2020. The 1918-1919 flu pandemic was long forgotten in the history books, overshadowed only by World War I and the Roaring 20s.

black and white photograph of soldiers in a trench during World War I

Within months, COVID-19 was made public. However, historians and educated citizens began writing again about the flu pandemic.

To warn people about the dangers of traveling, stories of a deadly second wave were told again. Pictures of ancestors wearing masks were also re-enacted.

We can better understand ourselves by studying the past. We can see patterns emerging and find comfort in knowing others have been through similar struggles.

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How do we study history?

There are many methods of teaching and studying history. Many people can recall high school classes that were filled with memorization of dates and names of historical events.

This kind of rote learning was essential a long time ago. But things have changed.

Today, 60% and 90%, respectively, of the U.S. population use the internet to find the facts they need. Learning history today is all about connecting and understanding not just what has happened but also why.

Critical thinking

You are probably familiar with jury work or have been to court. It takes work to reconstruct the past. It is important to research and take into account all the facts and then look at their connections to draw reasonable conclusions.

The fall of Rome is one example. The government of the Roman Empire was insecure during its last years. Yet, the empire spent money on expansion.

contemporary photograph of the destroyed ColosseumI

Outside groups, such as the Huns or Saxons, took advantage of this instability and invaded. The empire was split into West and East, further reducing unity. Christianity was taking over the Roman polytheistic religion.

You learn how to interpret historical facts and how they affect each other when you are a historian. Expanding empires are more challenging to control, and incursions can further tax resources. What is the root cause of this instability? Why is expansion so important?

When you can think like this and start asking these types of questions, you will be more engaged with the world around you.

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Finding the "So why?"

Although history study is fascinating, it's not the only reason we do it. The first step is to learn the facts and follow the story's thread.

The most important question of history is, "So Why?"

Take, for example:

  • Why was it so easy for the Chinese to maintain their empire in Asia? Why did this change after the Industrial Revolution
  • Why was 1944's invasion of Normandy a turning point in history? What would have happened if the Allies hadn't landed at French beaches?

This way of studying history will help you to see its importance and relevance and give you a deeper understanding of the events.

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