Why study history? This question has been going through my mind quite frequently this year. Although it is certainly something that I’ve been mulling over ever since my first year of undergrad. This year I’m back to studying: this time a Masters in ancient history. In fact I just submitted my thesis! Working and studying within the history field full time can sometimes be seen as strange though. I’ve often found that history is viewed as irrelevant or boring. There are occasions when even I’m disillusioned! Whenever I stop to think about it though, I really value what I’ve learned about the past. I’m also not the only one. So why do many of us study and value history?
I think that the events of this year have put the importance of history on the minds of many. For example, the Australian bushfires affected pretty much every Australian in some way. While people living in the inner cities were relatively protected from the fires themselves, everyone knew someone who had been affected; whether involved in the fire fighting, evacuated, or who had lost their home. The thick and constant smoke haze was also an ever present reminder. But the fires have lead to a greater curiosity about how Indigenous Australians manage the land to prevent such disasters in the present and in the past. So too, the Covid pandemic has drawn people to the history of the Spanish Flu and the Black Plague in an attempt to understand how people coped and how long the sicknesses lasted.
So, why study history? Firstly, history teaches us how to analyse. When we examine historical sources for the validity of their information and consider their reliability, we train ourselves to do the same with the current day news articles and political speeches. In this way we can identify different points of view and bias which helps us to discern what sources of information we can trust.
In delving into the stories of past people – how they lived and what decisions they made, we learn how to empathise. We learn to think about what we would do if we were in their situation, how we would respond, and how we would feel. This is such an important skill that we can use in our relationships with our friends and colleagues in day to day life. History, particularly ancient history, is often focused on understanding past cultures. I think that this knowledge has helped me to better understand perspectives of people who come from different cultural backgrounds to me.
A Long Perspective
Studying history provides us with a long perspective of time and events. Sometimes we feel that people in the past never went through what we are going through now. Or sometimes we feel that we are better, more skilful, or more knowledgeable than people in the past. But history often shows us that this isn’t as true as we might think. If we consider today’s world events, there is an excellent chance that similar things have happened before. There are also so many creations, constructions, and people from the past to admire and inspire wonder. Of course, that’s not to say that everything that happened in the past was good or acceptable, but we can learn from these happenings and seek to understand how to avoid them today and how to better treat people.
Drama and Fun
History is not always serious! In fact it is incredibly fun to study. I like to say that the past is like a fantasy fiction novel except that it actually happened. The past is full of colourful personalities, wacky events, back-biting politics, and intriguing mysteries to keep any fiction writer inspired for more than a lifetime. For those who love the true life stories, then history provides this too. There are plenty of inspiring past people to discover who made the tough but right decisions in the face of danger and difficulty.
So why study history? For me the study and understanding of the past is incredibly meaningful. I think that studying history gives us skills to be more discerning, more culturally and empathetically understanding of others, and more inspired. It is a discipline worth studying. There are also plenty of other reasons why we should learn about the past. I’d be keen to know what you love about history and why, so please comment below.