Why Do We Study History?

In math class today, howaboutwetalk posed an excellent question: “Why do we study History if some of us will never use this information in our lives?”

This is an excellent question.  At first blush, the content of history studies might seem like little more than a mind-numbing procession of irrelevant minutiae.  But if history is nothing more than the accumulation of facts and events, how is it possible that countless scholars have spent their entire lifetimes in the service of researching the past?  Consider the scope and scale of places like the Smithsonian or the Asian Civilizations Museum.  Consider the resources devoted to the creation and maintenance of these institutions, not to mention the work that went into researching their content. Is the human obsession with history simply a grand example of our tendency to hoard things?

Feel free to respond with your ideas or with more questions for consideration on this topic.  We will take up this discussion in class on Monday.

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3 thoughts on “Why Do We Study History?

  1. Because we have done many things (both good and bad ) and if we don’t record big and important moments in time, like going to the moon, then no one will remember the amazing triumphs, and that event will NOT BE OF ANY SIGNIFICANCE. ;-(

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  2. Why study history? The answer is because we virtually must, to gain access to the laboratory of human experience. When we study it reasonably well, and so acquire some usable habits of mind, as well as some basic data about the forces that affect our own lives, we emerge with relevant skills and an enhanced capacity for informed citizenship, critical thinking, and simple awareness. The uses of history are varied. Studying history can help us develop some literally “salable” skills, but its study must not be pinned down to the narrowest utilitarianism. Some history—that confined to personal recollections about changes and continuities in the immediate environment—is essential to function beyond childhood. Some history depends on personal taste, where one finds beauty, the joy of discovery, or intellectual challenge. Between the inescapable minimum and the pleasure of deep commitment comes the history that, through cumulative skill in interpreting the unfolding human record, provides a real grasp of how the world works.—Peter Stearns

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