Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Why Study History?

Dear Readers,

Today we are going to venture off the Kabinettskriege path and look at a question that many minds (much greater than mine... Marc Bloch, for example) have answered, or attempted to answer.

The question is this: why study History?

Why should anyone care about History? It doesn't feed you, it doesn't clothe you, it doesn't shelter you, why should you care?

As a history student, I can't recall how many family dinners where someone hears that you study history, and asks something like, "So you are studying history because you want to be a professor... doesn't that seem like a self-sustaining system?" or, "What is the use of history? So we won't be doomed to repeat it?"

The answer to this question is manifold. Here, I will attempt to give you the bare bones of an argument for history.

1) The "doomed to repeat it" mantra.

Believe it or not, this is actual a legitimate reason to keep the past alive. Ever heard of the Holocaust? American Slavery? There are people in this world who attempt to argue that the Holocaust didn't happen, and that Slavery, "really wasn't so bad." Well, as a Historian, I can guarantee that the Holocaust did happen, and Slavery really was so bad. Let's not even talk about what happened to the Native Americans. 

2) The "Informs who we are today" argument.

This is another common argument, and another good one. The best example I have ever heard of this is the Confederate flag. If you think History doesn't matter to people, go buy a Confederate (non-American readers: The rebels during the United States Civil War) flag, and wave it around in the American rural south. The individuals there will probably clap you on the back and offer to buy your drinks. Do the same thing in urban centers of the American north, and you might receive a beating. (With VERY good reason.) Thus, while history might not put food on the table, it informs who we are today.

3) Leads to a full life.

I met someone recently, who told me that living a life without a knowledge of history is like watching the Thanksgiving day parade on a small black/white tv. You could hear the commentary, perhaps even make out the various floats, but would it really be enjoyable? Living a life without history is the same way.Without it, you can get by, do your job, and live your life, but history adds meaning and depth to life.

4) Believe it or not, some people actually enjoy it! (And this makes History marketable)

In my mind, one of the best arguments for history is that some individuals actual enjoy it! Ever met a Civil War reenactor? A wargamer? Or perhaps someone who just enjoys reading? These people love history. In this way, one could think of the historian as a someone in the entertainment or hobby industry. While my professors would doubtless cringe to think of themselves in this way, the historian is not unlike a company which builds fishing boats. Not everyone loves fishing, or fishing boats, but some people do, and these people fishing boats, creating a demand for more fishing boats. In the same way, historians create a product (books, lectures, etc) to meet a demand.

5) Unless our society changes, schools and colleges require students to have History classes. 

History is a subject which students need to have. Like it, hate it, you have to take it anyway. This creates a demand for history teachers and professors. No one tells the science teachers that they are unnecessary. The fact that history teachers cannot be coerced into designing WMD's is an advantage, right? Just watch Back to the Future. If Doc Brown had been a History teacher, the Libyans wouldn't have shot him.

In summary, History warns us about the traumatic events of the past, (even if we usually choose to ignore that warning,) creates the word in which we currently live, adds meaning and depth to life, and is a commodity which can be bought and sold like anything else.

Believe it or not, History matters.

Thanks for reading,



  1. As one who once asked you just such a dinnertime question as you reference here (almost verbatim, if I remember correctly), I find this post interesting. :)

    Actually, I personally have always felt that each argument you present here is an excellent reason to keep history alive and to make sure it is always taught. My question was more reflective of my general distrust of academia, which I regard by and large as a "suspect" business that is predominantly run by liberal charlatans with an anti-American and anti-Christian agenda. From within that viewpoint, it makes more sense to learn history on one's own or with a trusted mentor, then start (or go to work for) a business or organization devoted to promulgating a correct view of history to others.

    However, I also recognize that there is an academic rigor that comes part and parcel with a traditional college/university education, and that's an advantage that's hard to ignore. So I'm certainly not criticizing your choice to pursue that path.

    Regardless, I agree completely that history is not only fascinating, but valuable, and deserving of preservation.

  2. That's true, you did ask me that! I was actually thinking of several conversations with my father when I wrote this, but I guess that that just goes to show that it needed to be addressed!

    You are certainly correct that academia has more liberal leanings. However, throughout my education, I have always found these critiques of Christianity and America helpful. To assume that America and Christianity have always been in the right is dangerous. We are not perfect, and it would be prideful to assume that we always please God with our actions.

    Thank you for understanding my choices to pursue academic life. I know we are often at odds on various issues, and it means a lot to hear you say this.

    I think you might enjoy this blog as well-

    I would love to hear your views on some of the problems I present, and as there have been no comments to date, you could get the ball rolling!