Why Should We Continue to Study History?

John Wiley 

The Paw Print

It was another day in the works for her high school education. As the teacher progressed from slide-to-slide on his Power Point presentation, she stealthily powered on her iPhone underneath her desk to see if her Twitter feed indicated any new notifications. This was a private school after all; phone confiscation was risky business with such a considerably high conviction percentage. Not much was going on in the world of social media apparently, so while the room filled with momentary quietness as the studious pupils jotted down the lecture notes, this ninth grader interjected a truly thoughtful and relevant question: “Mr. Wiley, why should we study history?” Quickly, another student responded with confidence, “Because we can learn how to not repeat past mistakes!”

Most classes, whether in the field of history or not, open the semester with particular reasons “why” the subject matter is worthwhile. Essays, books, scholars, and students have attempted to answer the question, “Why should we study history?” As the student in my classroom interposed, one view is that history helps us be, in essence, ethical and wiser. Certainly, the study of history can provide the student with a substantial foundation for morality and wisdom, but if that is the sole, or at least the primary, purpose of history, then why are topics outside of virtues often examined in history? Politics, technology, even things like culture and entertainment are not quite within the confines of ethical studies. Would it not save time and money to just provide students with a list of principles to follow if ethics was the primary reason of studying history? Now, this is not to demean the importance of historians who focus on morality and wisdom in any way, but perhaps an expansion on why studying history is significant will be necessary.

Another view for why the study of history is pertinent centers on the humanities. That is, these proponents would answer the question of why we should study history, “Because it helps us understand the human experience.” Indeed, topics that relate to the human experience, such as the history of philosophy, religion, and psychology are stimulating foci for me personally. By delving into the personal thought life of people who have lived in centuries and countries distinct from me (or even similar to me) can be an enrapturing encounter. But a question necessarily follows: “What if other people do not find the study of the human experience as provoking as I do?”

Going back to the introductory illustration, now, I would like to finish the story. After hearing both a question and a comment, I was trying to figure out in my head what would be the most meaningful way to carry on the conversation. I could have concurred with the ethical-view student, I could have presented my preferences (that history leads us into a better understanding of the human experience), but I took a different route. I simply said, “I don’t know.” I did, however, continue, “But I want you to try to find out the answer this semester.” Perhaps the question, “Why should we study history?” is the wrong question in the first place. Rather than moving people into a homogenous motivation, I would propose that a different question be asked for such an inclusive and multi-faceted subject: “Why should I study history?”

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