Monday, September 5, 2011

Why Study History? Revisited

Randall Stephens

On this blog we've included quite a few posts on "Why Study History?" beginning with one that Heather wrote back in March 2009. So, with the semester starting, it seems like a good time to revisit that question.

There are so many reasons why we study history. Sure, we might like to think that our encyclopedic knowledge of the Battle of Bull Run will win friends and influence people. It probably won't. Far too many undergrads and men and women on the street tend to believe that the study of history involves pointless rote memorization and war trivia. (History Channel maybe?)

As I get ready to teach my course on Critical Readings in History (a methods and historiography class) it helps me to think about the bigger picture. What large lessons does history teach us? How does it help us think critically about the world in which we live?

We learn about cause and effect from history. It teaches us about continuity and disruption. We also answer big questions and learn how to solve all sorts of problems related to what it means to be human.

Over at the Guardian Simon Jenkins writes about what history is and what it is not ("English History: Why We Need to Understand 1066 and All That," September 1, 2011). He begins with a content question that obsesses observes on this and that side of the Atlantic:

Which "bits" of English history do we need to know? Should they be Simon Schama's peasants' revolt, Indian empire and opium wars, or David Starkey's rules of chivalry? Or is the Cambridge professor Richard Evans right to dismiss "rote learning of the national patriotic narrative" out of hand, in favour of studying "other cultures separated from us by time and space"?

The answer is none of them as such. All seem static moments torn out of the context of history to suit a particular outlook on the world. Evans is the most wrong of all. His disparaging use of words such as rote and patriotic implies that facts about one's own country are in some way irrelevant, even shameful. All history must start from the reader's own standpoint in place and time. Otherwise it is just a blur.

To guard against the one-damn-thing-after-another approach, Jenkins warns:

The story of the nation in which we live is not a stage set crowded with isolated tableaux: the Norman conquest followed by Henry VIII, Charles I, the Industrial Revolution and finally leaping to Hitler. Sturdy tales of slavery, gender oppression and the defeat of Germany yield anecdotes that may raise the reader's blood pressure. But they are history neutered of argument, uncreative, essentially dumb. They may make us angry, but not wise. History must be continuous, building from cause to effect and reaching a crescendo in the present day.>>>

History provides us with a context to help us better understand our world today. It also teaches us innumerable lessons about human behavior, the nature of politics, change over time, how to write and tell a good story, and so much more.

But how does one best convince students that all this matters?


joyce said...

Exactly! It is actually a hard question. Students when directly asked, even seem surprised and confused by the question. At an article I read recently, some teachers don't even discuss why we need to study history and how it may help us in our daily lives. It is sad. :(

Randall said...

Interesting to read what those students had to say about it.

dan allosso said...

And it's funny, because we tend to think of the big central stories, but there are plenty of subfields like environmental history where a lot of new knowledge has been developed in the last couple of decades, but hasn't really found its way into popular understanding. People are taking enviro studies at colleges, and not getting any type of historical context -- which they need, because science curricula tend to present facts as if they were eternal and unchanging. How many people you meet at the grocery store would recognize even universally digested EH concepts like the Columbian Exchange?