History encompasses more than dates, names, and places. It describes how cultures remember events, how those events are presented to the next generation, and how the present engages with the past. In recent years, there’s been a decline in the study of history. Why is this something we should care about? Here are ten reasons why history is important:
#1. History builds a better understanding of the world
How does the world work? How causes societies to thrive or fail? We can answer these questions by studying history. Because it encompasses so many areas – like medical history, art history, economic history, etc – history can give us the fullest picture of how things unfold. Perhaps most importantly, history also provides us with a better understanding of how we got to where we are now.
#2. History helps us understand humanity
Humans are complicated. It can be very challenging to figure out why people do the things they do. When we look at humanity with a broader lens, it can bring more clarity. In many ways, people are products of their environments, which includes the eras they were born in. Studying history can shed light on human behavior throughout time and help explain what’s consistent and what seems to be more dependent on context.
#3. History can teach us to be better citizens
Many people, including teachers, consider history an important part of being a good citizen. Students learn about how different policies affect their rights as citizens and how those rights came to be. For example, the history of voting reveals the many groups involved in ensuring voter equality, including the many Black and Indigenous people in places like the United States, Australia, and Canada. When students learn how hard people in the past worked for their rights, they’re more likely to understand how important they are.
#4. History can help the world make better decisions
“Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it” is arguably the most famous quote about history. It’s credited to philosopher George Santayana and has been repeated by other famous people in various forms. This quote endures because it rings so true. Though many things change through time, some things don’t. Countries that don’t provide basic human rights always experience conflict. When humans hurt the planet, humans end up hurt. These are truths we can confirm by understanding history. If we commit to changing based on what we know, we can make better decisions.
#5. Studying history can improve critical thinking
Learning about history doesn’t inherently lead to better critical thinking, but it’s a great vehicle for improving this skill. Every student of history should dig deeper than just memorizing names and dates. They should ask themselves “why.” You’re also exercising critical thinking when you ask about who records history and how that might affect its presentation. Is there another perspective?
#6. Studying history opens up job opportunities
A degree in history opens up more career options than you might think. History majors find jobs in governments, NGOs, businesses, media organizations, and more. Several high-profile CEOs have backgrounds in history. This shows the value of history and that the skills that go into studying – such as critical thinking – apply to many fields. While knowing certain events and their corresponding dates might not end up being that important to your life, the “soft skills” you picked up in the process are valuable.
#7. Understanding history can protect people from conspiracy theories
Major upheavals in society can be terrifying. They can also be hard to track through one lifetime, so history provides a map for the types of scenarios that lead to big change. Things like increased poverty, war, and distrust in the government have led to more crime and political radicalization. Understanding history and what drives change helps protect people from conspiracy theories, which tend to spread faster during stressful, chaotic times. When unchecked, belief in conspiracy theories can have tragic consequences and lead to real-world violence.
#8. History shapes cultural (and national) identity
History is important to identity. Nations have holidays recognizing big historical events and figures. The stories people tell shape their view of their cultural or national identity, informing how they behave in the present. Leaders understand how important history is and will reference it whenever they believe it will inspire people.
#9. History can be manipulated to fit an agenda
Because history has such a major impact on a nation’s identity, it’s frequently manipulated and controlled. There are many things that certain groups would prefer not to remember. We can see this happening in places like the United States, where teaching about slavery and race has been controversial for decades. History textbooks contain multiple errors, omissions, or interpretations that downplay slavery. Recently, many states are passing laws that ban critical race theory in schools, but the definition isn’t clear and could lead to teachers being penalized for simply teaching about race. History is at the center of this culture war.
#10. History can facilitate empathy
Like critical thinking, history on its own doesn’t necessarily lead to more empathy, but it provides a great canvas. The nonprofit Facing History and Ourselves believes that learning history can play a key role in addressing bigotry and hate. Students can practice “historical empathy,” which teaches them to contextualize the actions of people in the past. Using primary sources – which show how events were represented and discussed when they were happening – is a good way to help students understand the past in a more empathetic way.