Why study history?

Why study history? Anyone considering enrolling in a history course must think about this question.

To study history, you should have an interest in the past – but that should not be your only reason for studying history. It is also important that you understand the importance and value of history.

The value of history questioned

In today’s world, where the focus is very much on today and tomorrow, the value of history is often questioned.

Many people are sceptical about the practical worth of history. Some question the relevance and usefulness of studying things that happened long ago. Some believe history has little or no bearing on their lives or on the world today. Some doubt the practical value of a history qualification in the career market.

All these issues deserve some thought, particularly for aspiring history students. You should know your reasons for choosing to study history. As an exponent of history, you should be able to explain and justify these reasons.

This page contains some brief points about the value and importance of studying history. It may be useful for those thinking about a history course, as well as teachers or parents advising young people about studying history.

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John F Kennedy as a young history student at college

History requires a complex range of skills

Many people with a negative or dismissive view of history think it involves simple memorisation and recall of facts and dates, but little else. It is, they believe, simply knowing what happened in the past. Anyone who has studied history at higher levels will tell you there is much more involved.

History requires you to acquire and utilise many skills. History students must develop the ability to locate, study and interpret written and visual material, in order to extract evidence and meaning. They must be adept at contextualisation, analysis, problem-solving and critical thinking. History students must be strong communicators, to express their findings clearly and effectively.

History also draws on and utilises knowledge and ideas from many other disciplines, including politics, legal studies, economics, sociology, philosophy, psychology, the sciences and the arts. These skills and knowledge can be extremely useful, both in employment and in the study of other subjects.

History teaches lessons about past, present and future

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Henry Ford, the US industrial pioneer who famously claimed that “history is bunk”

For as long as human beings have studied history, cynics have dismissed it as a curious indulgence, a quaint but worthless fascination with vanished societies and dead people. This attitude was typified by American industrialist Henry Ford, who in 1916 said that “History is more or less bunk [nonsense] … the only history worth a damn is the history we make today”.

Ford’s negative view of history, while not uncommon, is narrow and misguided. History certainly does require study of the past – but this only enhances your understanding of the modern world.

Most history courses focus on timeless themes and issues – for example, the ways in which people, communities and nations interact; the nature of power and leadership; the difficulties of government and economic management; the impact of war and conflict on societies; and the relationships between different classes, wealth, capital and labour.

These themes, issues and challenges remain a constant in human societies. Only the people, places and details change.

History also provides an essential context for understanding the modern world. It is impossible to understand modern Russia and China, for example, without understanding how these societies have been shaped by imperialism, war, revolution, communism and the Cold War.

History teaches you to research and interpret

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Jewish historian Dr Jacob Weintraub studies a scroll containing the Torah

To be a successful history student or historian, you must first become a good researcher. Research is the skill of locating and gathering information and historical evidence, from many different places. This evidence can be found in a variety of forms, including documents, visual material, physical artefacts, oral and digital sources.

Historians apply their knowledge and skills to locate sources and to extract information, evidence and meaning from them. They think critically about every piece of evidence, testing and evaluating its reliability, credibility, usefulness and significance.

All this makes historians and history graduates skilled at locating, handling and evaluating information. Skills like these are not just valued in history, they are in demand in other academic disciplines and a range of professions.

History teaches you to think and problem-solve

History can be extraordinarily complex. It requires a great deal of detective work, careful thought and problem-solving. As historians locate information and evidence, they begin to build up an understanding and a ‘picture’ of the people, event or society being studied. As they delve deeper into the past, historians almost always find unanswered questions, unclear information or missing pieces of evidence.

After finishing his or her research, the historian must start looking for answers. At this point, history becomes akin to assembling a gigantic jigsaw puzzle – except there is no box or picture to serve as a guide and some of the pieces are missing. The historian must weigh up their evidence, think logically and laterally, then develop credible and justifiable arguments or theories.

History teaches you to communicate

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Historian Daniel Walker Howe delivers an address

As in other humanities disciplines, historians and history students must be effective communicators. They must develop and refine techniques to share their findings and conclusions.

Historians communicate in many different ways. Many prominent historians publish the findings of their research as books. Academic historians often write articles for scholarly journals, where they are peer reviewed (examined by other historians) before publication.

Historians can also articulate their findings in newspaper or magazine articles, interviews, lectures, symposiums and conferences or on the Internet.

History students, in contrast, usually outline their conclusions in essays and term papers, book reports, document or image analyses, oral presentations, performances, projects, slideshows and examinations. All require you to develop a range of communication skills. These skills are used and valued in other academic disciplines, as well as various fields of employment.

History prepares you for many professions

One criticism often made of history is a perceived lack of value in the career market. While commerce students go on to work in business and science students have a range of career options, a history qualification seems to offer few direct paths to employment (other than history teaching, academia or museum work).

This is an unfair representation of how useful and highly regarded history qualifications are. The skills and knowledge acquired from studying history are valued by many professions.

As effective writers and communicators, many history graduates become successful journalists, copywriters, authors, editors, content managers and marketing professionals. Being able to locate, organise and manage information has enabled many history graduates to become outstanding researchers, librarians, information managers and administrators.

Many history graduates also complete additional study to become lawyers, diplomats and public officials. Politics is another career path for history graduates, some of whom have risen to high office. History is also a useful platform for a career in the military or police forces – or for further studies in economics, business management, records management, social work or psychology.

Some famous people who have studied history at university level:

  • Joe Biden (US vice president)
  • Gordon Brown (British prime minister)
  • Steve Carell (American actor/comedian)
  • Prince Charles (British royal)
  • Sacha Baron Cohen (British actor/comedian)
  • Winston Churchill (British prime minister)
  • Dwight D. Eisenhower (US general and president)
  • Katherine Hepburn (American actress)
  • Seymour Hersh (American journalist)
  • Chris Hughes (American entrepreneur and co-founder of Facebook)
  • Kareem Abdul Jabbar (American basketballer)
  • John F. Kennedy (American president)
  • Henry Kissinger (American politician and diplomat)
  • Richard Nixon (American president)
  • Ed Norton (American actor)
  • Conan O’Brien (American TV host)
  • Bill O’Reilly (American broadcaster)
  • Samuel Palmisano (American executive, CEO of IBM)
  • Franklin D. Roosevelt (American president)
  • Theodore Roosevelt (American president)
  • Salman Rushdie (British author)
  • Antonin Scalia (US Supreme Court Justice)
  • Shakira (Colombian pop singer)
  • Howard Stringer (Welsh executive, CEO of Sony)
  • Louis Theroux (British documentary maker)
  • H. G. Wells (British author)
  • Gough Whitlam (Australian prime minister)
  • Woodrow Wilson (American president)

History creates good citizens

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, history helps create thoughtful people and good citizens.

Unlike those in fields like mathematics or the physical sciences, history students spend most of their time studying people and societies. They learn what it means to be human. They learn the value of things like ethics, empathy, diversity and social justice. They learn the risks and dangers of certain ideas. They learn about the timeless issues and problems that affect human societies, both past and present.

This equips history graduates to understand and work with the people in their own world. Studying history also creates thoughtful and active citizens who are willing to participate in the political process or in their own communities. 

Many history students are also endowed with healthy scepticism. They have a willingness and capacity to question their own world – and perhaps find ways to make it better.

Citation information
Title: “Why study history?”
Authors: Jennifer Llewellyn, Steve Thompson
Publisher: Alpha History
URL: https://alphahistory.com/why-study-history/
Date published: April 10, 2019
Date accessed: August 10, 2019
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