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Why History? – The Stanford Daily

History therefore is of paramount importance. No wonder history departments are located at the center of every major university across the country. If you would like to know more why history matters, please consult the Why Study History? Below is a list of suggestions for further reading and reflection. Skip to main content. Suggestions for Further Reading Bloch, Marc. Translated by Peter Putnam. The students in my undergraduate classes— and even some of my friends—didn't see the relevance of history to their lives or majors.

What would sports medicine be without medicine? What would music be without Beethoven? In every subject that my students threw at me, there was a tie to history. Because there is history behind everything. In fact, the question itself is a relatively recent phenomenon. Many cultures throughout time have not questioned the study of history; it was simply part of the rounded curriculum. Ancient cultures devoted a significant amount of time and effort to study history, believing that the past helps a child understand who he or she is as a person.

It also helped them to understand their place in society and how to become contributing members. Everywhere you look, there is history. From old houses to haunted asylums, from your great-grandmother's antique dresser to family photos, and from the transition from miles of farmland to miles of skyscrapers, there is history: Aside from that, there are a lot of great reasons that we should study history and encourage schools to continue to teach history to our children. Time reveals many things: Your personal history shapes who you are, from your beliefs to your tastes in food.

These individual experiences generate a highly unique story that - although it may share similarities with other individuals - is entirely your own.

Penelope J. Corfield

Combine these individual stories - in fact, combine hundreds or thousands of them - and you begin to have what we call "collective memory. History is a form of collective memory; usually, one that has been intensively studied and refined to ensure that the stories form a true narrative of events, usually supplemented by individual stories.

Thus, history is the story of us and can teach us who we are, where we come from, and perhaps reveal where we want to go. History also gives us an asset not found in more systematic subjects like science: Time reveals things we may not have seen in the present: History also keeps us from oversimplifying our experiences, showing us that every decision we make is a culmination of our past decisions and that there are always multiple factors—some obvious, some not—at work. On a more personal level, history helps us understand our "risk factors.

To understand our own family's traditions and customs, we must look to where we came from and who those people were. To understand how to avoid problems that our family faces, we have to look at why those problems started in the first place. And this helps us relate to other people, by showing us how our different experiences can result in people who believe entirely different things. It's like comparing Southerners to Californians in the U.

There's two vastly different lifestyles present within the same country, but it's because of who came here and where they settled. Understanding that helps you to understanding—and even accepting—differences. In addition to helping us understand who we are, history helps us become informed, active citizens of the world and of our home countries. As I've stated before, history is "collective memory. Knowing this collective memory is a key to becoming an informed citizen. And being an informed citizen is essential to a democratic society.

It encourages people to actively participate and debate, helping to refine our core beliefs and, possibly, challenge old beliefs that are no longer relevant.

Why History Matters

As Etieene Gilson states, "History is the only laboratory we have in which to test the consequences of thought. In this way, history helps us to understand current events. Why was there a war in Iraq and why did it matter to countries on the other side of the world? Why did such a regime ever exist, and should it have been allowed to exist for so long?

We must look to history—and into how religion, politics, environment, and colonialism shaped the Middle East—to understand why such events are accepted and why people believe that religion and politics should mix. History also helps teach us how to look at multiple solutions to any problem by comparing multiple versions of events.

If there were two solutions to a problem, how would you choose? You would likely base your choice on past experiences or the advice of others based on their past experiences. Thus, history helps us learn how to compare multiple versions of the same event or multiple solutions to a problem.

Such a skill is valuable in a variety of fields, including human resources, conflict resolution, statesmanship, and any other activity that requires considering multiple points of view.


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This skill also helps increase our ability to empathize with other individuals, because we learn that no two people experience the same event in the exact same way. History also teaches us that history itself is subjective.


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It was often written by the "winners," with other accounts either hidden or lost to time. It shows us that multiple accounts of the same events can exist - like the Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls. It also shows us that when there aren't multiple accounts, we have to rely on oral histories or recognize that the version of events we have before us may not be the full story - like in the case of Native American societies and European colonialism.

Good history classes, therefore, require more than recitation. They require a grounding in historical methods: Additionally, history teaches us values. Through history, children learn that people throughout the world are—and have always been—different and yet strikingly similar. We have lived and believed in different ways, but we all have the same essential needs. Our version of history also helps shape our values.

Children raised on an American version of history which is decidedly Eurocentric have values that don't always align with Eastern values: Children raised in a communist state may grow up believing that the communist regime is much better than any other past political rule, because that is what the communist state dictates such as Soviet Russia , and this profoundly affects how children view other world cultures and political systems like democracy.

Such values are also evident in our myths and legends. Young people learn that the best laid plans often go awry; that human emotions can prove the driving force of history; that unintended consequences are the rule more than the exception; and that injustice is both real and terrible and can be changed by the actions of a dedicated few. All of this creates a supple intellect that can respond to new situations with ease, confidence, and creativity. And it is superb preparation for the customized careers students will craft out of an unknown future.

Why Study History?

That is particularly true in courses on modern America, where we do a slow slide into the present. In the last few weeks of the course, I tell students, things will start looking more and more familiar. We shall never cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time.

In the end, then, history responds to that ancient Greek injunction, gnothi seauton: It also embodies the original impulse of the humanities, Geistewissenschaften, or spiritual studies. For it is only with self-knowledge that we can become conscious, moral, and purposive actors in our own lives. And only by knowing ourselves can we hope to change the world.

Quick Answer

Contact Professor Burns at jenniferburns stanford. Thursday, September 20, Share on Facebook Share on Twitter.