Why do we study history?
There are many different reasons to study history. The first reason is that we study our past to learn more about our future. While each situation in history in unique, by studying the past we can learn more about why an event happened. Leaders can learn lessons from history—after the Great Depression, government became more active in managing the economy. This is an example of learning from history. There was also some news censorship in the early days of the Iraq War after the extensive news coverage of the Vietnam conflict made the war unpopular with the American people—this is another example of a lesson taken from history.
History can also provide inspiration. One can look at leaders and emulate some of their characteristics. National histories can also inspire a people in times of trouble and provide a source of nationalistic pride.
Finally, the study of history can allow the growth of one's writing and analytical skills. Historians often write a great deal and they are mindful of their audience. Historians also look for reason why events happened. Historians gather evidence and form conclusions; no matter what someone does in life, this is a valuable skill.
There are multiple reasons to study history, just like any other subject.
One main reason is to understand the path that different people or nations took to get to where they are now. There have been many major changes in nations over the years (i.e. slavery, voting rights, state and country borders) that we would not know about without history. It is important to see where everyone and everything started to see how everything has changed and what progress has been made.
Another important reason is to help understand the present and the future. We can look at history to better guess what to expect. We can look at the evolution of racial tensions and women's rights to better guess where gay rights could go in different countries. We can also study the impact of previous wars and depressions to predict where current or future ones will go. This helps us to find solutions and resolutions better.
“That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach,” Aldous Huxley wrote. Perhaps first and foremost, we study history to understand what our species has attempted so far, what has worked, and what has not worked. Our written history can be seen as an invaluable record of countless experiments our species has conducted thus far, as well as the results of those experiments. This record allows us to analyze massive tragedies—e.g. the atrocities committed under Stalin in the Soviet Union, or those committed under Pol Pot in Cambodia—in order to avoid recreating the conditions that led to those tragedies. It also enables us to analyze monumental successes, such as the global decline in violence in the last few millennia (as outlined in Stephen Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature), in order to perpetuate or replicate those successes as we progress into the future.
People do, however, study history for a wide array of reasons. For many the subject is inherently fascinating—a kind of time travel. For others, history itself is seen as akin to an irreplaceable artifact that must be preserved and remembered for its cultural and humanistic value. For other still, studying history is a practical method of learning the strategies that have allowed individuals to succeed and thrive in the world.
In sum, history is quite literally the study of where we come from—of what it has meant to be a human being in this world thus far. It is one of our most useful lenses for understanding what we are, where we have been, and where, perhaps, we ought to go.