As a History teacher, it will come as no surprise that I think that studying the past is one of the most enjoyable things we can do. However, I frequently get asked by students, teachers and even my own friends why someone would invest so much time in people and events that haven’t existed for a very long time.
I thought I would summarise my typical answers to these people in today’s blog post.
What is 'History'?
Firstly, it might be worth my time stipulating what I mean by ‘history’. History, as a subject, looks at people, societies, places and events that existed before the time when we were born. This could be things in the recent past, such as the lives of our own parents, or it could be things in the distant past, like the building of the Egyptian pyramids. Therefore, history is a vast subject, covering thousands of years, spanning the entire globe, and the lives of billions of people. So, why would you bother learning about these things?
1. Become Culturally Appreciative
Let me start with a practical reason: studying the past makes you far more empathetic towards people and cultures that differ from your own. All people tend to think that the culture that they grew up with is ‘normal’ and that all other cultures should be judged in comparison to it. This kind of thinking results in people who struggle to tolerate the vastly different cultures they encounter when they travel the modern world.
Therefore, one of the most practical outcomes of studying the past is finding out that the way that we live now is not ‘normal’. In fact, the modern world is definitely ‘not normal’ in comparison to the way that humans have lived for most of their existence.
History allows people to learn about how people from distinctly different cultures, beliefs and practices have achieved extraordinary things that are worthy of our utmost respect. For those who study the past and learn to appreciate, and even enjoy, the vast differences among humans, they can become effective global citizens.
2. Critical Thinking
The ‘bread and butter’ of studying History is learning how to critically analyse sources of information. Since we did not live through the events we study, we rely upon the accounts of those who did in order to understand them. However, when these people recorded their experiences, they did so using their own perceptions, biases and personal limitations. Therefore, as we read their accounts, it becomes crucial to be able to evaluate the potential accuracy and reliability of the information they present to us.
The ability to use a critical eye when reading something is an incredibly valuable skill in the real world. This is especially true in the current debate about ‘fake news’. As a student of History that gets used to critically assessing what you’re reading, it makes you far less susceptible to falling prey to false information.
3. Learn How to Argue
History students are expected to write analytically. This means that they learn how to form a clear line of argument and support it with information from reliable sources. This is not an easy skill to learn, and takes continuous practice. However, once you learn how to create a solid line of reasoning, you have the benefit of being able to present sound arguments in a range of professional settings.
4. Global Political Awareness
One of the great benefits of studying History is the ability to make sense of the modern world. For example: why are there two Koreas? How did English become such a dominant international language? Why do countries who claim to be democracies have such vastly different political systems? These questions and more make so much sense when you discover the past. Learning about these things allows people to engage intelligently with current events.
5. Language Development
As you study the cultures of the past, you cannot help but pick up words and phrases. Very quickly you start connecting the dots between different languages. When you begin travelling the world, you can make a lot of sense of things at completely random times. Whilst you may never learn a language in full, it is surprising what you can understand with a little bit of History knowledge.
6. It's Just So Interesting!
Finally, and probably my favourite point, is that learning about the past is absolutely fascinating. It is genuinely fun to find out about the crazy things that humans have done during our long history. For example, did you know that Egyptian priests were supposed to be complete bald and they even shaved their eyebrows to make sure they were? Or that an inventor was so confident in his parachute design that he tested it himself by jumping from the Eiffel Tower (and that his confidence was badly misplaced)? What about the fact that kissing was banned in England in 1439?
I could go on, but you get the idea. The crazy oddities of the past are what makes shows like Horrible Histories such a roaring success. Facts are truly stranger than fiction.
What are Your Reasons?
That is just a short list of my reasons. Do you have other reasons, or have other examples you would add to what I have said? Add your thoughts below and I might even add some to my own list.