Why should students study history?I feel as though some students don't take the initiative to study a subject (e.g. history) unless they're given insight into why this topic is important to...

Why should students study history?

I feel as though some students don't take the initiative to study a subject (e.g. history) unless they're given insight into why this topic is important to learn/understand. In some cases, a number of students won't make the effort to study the subject matter if it isn't perceived to be applicable to their life or career choice. My question is, what incentives are offered to those who study history or, put in other words, why is it important for students to learn history (whether in or outside of school)?

Asked on by magnotta

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billdelaney's profile pic

William Delaney | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

The trouble with studying history is that we forget almost everything--unless we are history majors or have photographic memories. I studied history in elementary school, in high school, and in college, and I believe I have forgotten about ninety-nine percent of what I supposedly learned. I doubt if I'm much different from the average person.

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William Delaney | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

I majored in English in high school and college and read most of the great English and American writers as well as some great foreign writers in translation. I always disliked history and quickly forgot what little I learned. It took me many years to realize why I disliked history. It was because most historians are dull, boring writers. If I hadn't acquired a taste for good writing from being an English major, I might not have found most history books so distasteful that they made history seem like a musty, moldy, tedious subject. In recent years I have discovered that I can enjoy history if I watch documentaries on DVDs. I have watched many hours of programming about American history, British history, Roman history, Greek history, and other historical documentaries and docu-dramas. It seems to me that this is the way to teach history to students who can't stand history books and especially those horrible history textbooks.

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patdobbsedd | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Adjunct Educator

Posted on

The study of history is essential to understanding how we arrived at our current status as a nation. The study of history is our roadmap that leads to a destination if we read it carefully.

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Michael Ugulini | (Level 3) Educator

Posted on

Students should study history to gain a better understanding of current world conditions. Decisions, policies, actions, wars, ventures, and initiatives of the past have contributed to the way the world is today. Therefore, one must know and understand history to know and understand the present state of affairs in politics, culture, societies, and more.

Studying history is vital to a better understanding of today's economic conditions, business climates, national and regional wars and disputes, and environmentalism. Knowledge of history is also vital to a better understanding of different cultures, political movements, uprisings, technological advancements, current ideologies, and such.

Studying history and grasping the essence and truth (not misinformation) of historical events helps individuals, as well as groups, governments, businesses and political parties make informed decisions to further their different agendas.

For example, an understanding of the history of nations involved in the Arab Spring, assists one in understanding what led to the tumult and transference of power in those nations (for example Egypt). An understanding of the history of the Democratic Party and the Republican Party assist one in understanding the current political climate in the United States, with the rise of the Tea Party, as well as the rise of President Obama as the first black President.

History is a teacher that influences present decisions. These decisions are in turn what those in the future will look back on as history, which helps them understand their society better.

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carol-davis | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

Knowledge of the past is essential to proper evaluation of the present and the future.  History is not just dates and battles.  It entails the development of a people and their culture. From its prime to today, America has become the nation that it is because of the steps of our ancestors.  The America that hopefully is loved by most of its citizens should be appreciated.  We are the greatest nation; consequently, we should understand how that happened in such a short time. 

Everyone who is an American has an interconnectedness.  We are linked through our past.  History affords evidential information about people's behavior, societies proclivities, and possibilities for the future. 

Further, history affords the knowledge to assist in change.  When a negative development comes along, in order, to fully institute understanding, one must look back at how and why the change happened.  For example, as far as 9/11 terrorist attacks, history provided knowledge concerning why the US was attacked, who were the terrorists, and what events led to the tragedy.  Columbine, muliple suicides, technological changes--scientist, behavorists, economist, psychologists all use history to determine where to go next in solving or helping to improve these problems.

"History teaching by example" is one phrase that describes this study of the past—a study not only of certifiable heroes, the great men and women of history who successfully worked through moral dilemmas, but also of more ordinary people who provide lessons in courage, perseverance, or constructive protest.  The settlers who traveled west, the first brave astronauts, the explorers, the civil rights workers--these people can teach myriad lessons of courage, fortitude, and values. 

Patriotism springs from history.  Every person who sings "The Star Spangled Banner" should know the story behind the poem and know what inspired Francis Scott Key to write it. All Americans should hear the humorous story of Benjamin Franklin promoting the turkey as the national bird. These are the anecdotes of our country.  Should we not know everything possible about the greatest nation on earth?

Robert Penn Warren, a poet laureate stated:

History cannot give us a program for the future, but it can give us a fuller understanding of ourselves, and of our common humanity, so that we can better face the future.

Today's generations like to take short cuts. There are some aspects of society that require attention.  Studying history is one of those long term projects for all Americans. 

tinicraw's profile pic

tinicraw | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

I would echo everyone above. So much depends on what has gone before so that we don't repeat the bad and we can learn from the past before suffering again. We can also learn about what has worked in the past to help solve similar problems now. For example, lawyers look to past rulings to help with current/similar cases as a guide. Judges look at precedence, too, so they are able to determine where past judgments have come from. Then, if there are still any remaining prejudices, those can be overtuned or changed. We can also understand why we think the way we do because of history and change as needed to improve our society. The history classes themselves generally focus on the cause and effect consequences of actions and students can learn from that way of thinking in their own lives; well, all of us can.

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litteacher8 | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

I think sometimes people don't realize that something has been tried before.  If we don't study history, we are doomed to repeat it because we are too gullible.  We will believe what we are told, because we don't know any better.  Consider the stock market failure that led to the Great Depression.  Everyone was getting greedy and more and more people were taking greater risks. Sound familiar?

pohnpei397's profile pic

pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

I start every one of my history courses with this question.  I know that this field is less clearly relevant to life than many others.  I therefore try to acknowledge those issues right up front.

In answering that, I do bring up the points that others have raised here.  However, I also talk about the need for cultural literacy.  I talk about the need to understand the historical allusions that give us a shared sense of the past.  I talk about how our country is not built on any long-standing geographical location or on any one ethnicity.  Therefore, we need to understand our shared past to give us a better chance to feel connected to one another today.

ask996's profile pic

ask996 | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Senior Educator

Posted on

I agree with the previous posters, but sometimes a teacher needs to work harder to help students make the personal connections for why we study history. For example, why would we study seminal U.S. documents in history and English? These documents have helped provide our current way of life. Looking at how people through history solve problems or take stands against injustice could be connected to the very real problems that students face in everyday life. Studying history also makes students more cognizant of the lies, the manipulations, and the propaganda that is sometimes used to misrepresent or distort the truth. A resource that they can browse such as the eNotes link that follows might be a great way of capturing their interest.

rrteacher's profile pic

rrteacher | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

These posts raise a number of excellent points, and I am almost completely in agreement with each of them. I would add a couple more, however. First, as Sam Wineburg and others have claimed, history offers the chance of "humanizing us" more than any other subject in the curriculum. This is because doing history (as opposed to the passive act of learning about things that happened in the past) requires us to engage in the "unnatural act" of empathizing with people whose worldviews were very different than our own. I would argue that this is actually the most important benefit that history offers students--the imperative of trying to see things as others saw them. In other words, "tying the present to the past" (Wineburg's words) which are implicit in some of the responses on this thread is not only useful inasmuch as it helps us avoid the mistakes of the past. It also helps us develop as critical thinkers, able to empathize with very different points of view, to come to terms with our own inherent subjectivity, and to, acknowledging all the complexities I've mentioned in this post, still form a clear, coherent argument or opinion.

Besides the work of Wineburg, particularly Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, which I highly recommend to any history teacher, there is also the famous speech given by historian Peter Stearns when he was president of the American Historical Association entitled "Why Study History?" Stearns makes too many arguments to mention here, but it is an ideal reading for Day One of a upper level high school or college class. I have linked to both of them below, along with a discussion about the development of history as a scholarly discipline that shows how its uses have changed over time. It should also noted that surveys of business leaders repeatedly show that the types of critical thinking skills, as well as writing skills, that are indisputably part of studying history, are highly desirable in the workplace.

lentzk's profile pic

Kristen Lentz | Middle School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

The main reason people should study history is to better understand themselves and their own situation in the world.  I continually told my students that the questions they needed to ask themselves about history is "So What? and Who Cares?".  We should study things that give us an understanding of our society and our beliefs. 

For example, there are thousands of ancient civilizations.  Why should we study any of them?  They have been gone for thousands of years.  I took the time to teach my students ancient civilizations that have had an impact on our culture, government, or lifestyles today.  Studying the ancient Greece showed my students the impact that society had on the government and culture of our country; therefore, it was a valid study into their own lives and not some random force of history.

Building personal relevance is the most important part of history, and the hardest job of the educator.  If it is done correctly, it will have a profound impact on the learning of your students.


bullgatortail's profile pic

bullgatortail | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

I have been asked this question many times over the years by students who (mostly) hate the thought of studying history. I usually respond with the often misquoted statement by philosopher George Santayana:

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it..." (Wikipedia)

(It is more often incorrectly paraphrased as "Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.") In any case, the study of past history serves to remind people living in the present of the mistakes and accomplishments of men and women who came before us. A study of history should reveal, for example, the atrocities of Hitler and why they should not be repeated; how the wisdom, honesty and persistence of Abraham Lincoln are virtues found in few of our more recent leaders; or, even the repercussions of Adam and Eve's taste of the forbidden fruit. Hopefully, students of history will be able to distinguish the good and bad, right and wrong, and successful and unsuccessful aspects of past events and learn from them. 

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crystaltu001 | Student, Grade 10 | (Level 1) Valedictorian

Posted on

Student should study history in school because it is important for them to know how the world is like this now. We need to learn what had happened in the past and how people lived if the world wasn't how it is today. We should be able to know our country's past and the past of other places.

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wifii213 | Student, Grade 10 | (Level 3) eNoter

Posted on

It gives us an idea on how everything has become today. We learn from our past and of course we understand more on our place in the world. Maybe someday the way we live will change forever because of history itself, but it already happened a lot of times already and more changes will happen.

adibuddyboy's profile pic

adibuddyboy | Student, Grade 9 | (Level 2) eNoter

Posted on

The experts have put forth a number of brilliant points above!

Being a student myself this question would be on my mind through every history lecture!!

However the day I asked my teacher this question, she answered it in the most wonderful manner in just one line!!

She said "to know where you are going you need to know where you are coming from"

And that Cleared all my doubt right there

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