Why is it important to study history?

studying history
© Teerawat Winyarat

Daniel Scarborough from Nazarbayev University examines why it is important to study history

In our everyday lives, we often encounter history in the form of narratives that are told in politics, popular culture, and even high school textbooks. These depictions of past events are often shaped by ideas in the present. They describe the past as the narrator would like to imagine it, and convey messages about the world we live in. The manipulation of history facilitates the manipulation of the present because so much of our world is shaped by our collective memory.

Professional historians do not promote narratives about the past driven by contemporary agendas. They study history in past human experiences through primary sources. These can be documents, paintings, films, artefacts, and other forms of information produced by the people who lived at the time being studied. Historians analyse these sources by first determining their context, perspective, and reliability; thereby determining what kind of historical information they can provide, and what they cannot. For example, a letter written by a nurse working in a hospital ward in 1918 and a report by a public health official from the same year would provide very different perspectives on the influenza epidemic at that time and help the historian to answer different questions about that event. Through careful analysis of primary sources, historians strive to study the past through the lens of the past, rather than the lens of the present.

Historical knowledge allows us to be informed participants

The skill of building historical knowledge on the basis of evidence from primary sources liberates the student of history from narratives about the past that are intended to tell us who we are and where our loyalties should lie. For example, if we study the development of modern mass politics, we can better understand the meaning of terms such as “nation,” “republic,” and “democracy,” their application to contemporary politics, and their rhetorical exploitation by public figures. Historical knowledge empowers us to be informed participants in the ongoing development of the traditions, laws, and institutions that order our lives, rather than passive subjects of those who would define them for us.

The critical study of history is essential to our understanding of our collective human experience, both in the context of our own community and in the broader context that encompasses other communities more remote from our own. Historical knowledge of cultures around the globe can help us to understand the traditions and values of communities that may seem foreign to us, but with which we must interact in an increasingly integrated, global economy. A firm grounding in world history can help us to overcome xenophobia, and better appreciate social diversity. Students of history become better citizens of the global community, and of their own countries.

Events of the past still shape the world today

In addition to successful institutions, historians study atrocities like slavery and genocide. The enormities of the past continue to influence our world in the form of political conflicts, social animosities, and economic hardships. In order to address these problems, we need to understand their historical context. Evidence-based analysis is a necessary prerequisite for the determination of ethical solutions to the problems created by past tragedies.

The discipline of history is extremely broad in its application because it is the study of the collective experience of all humanity. In this pursuit, historians must analyse evidence from an extremely wide range of sources. This pursuit demands intellectual courage and versatility that empowers students of history and prepares them to conduct independent research in many other spheres of life, such as law, finance, public policy, and medicine. Moreover, in order to be useful, historical research must be explained to a broad audience. So, the student of history must learn to communicate in clear, articulate prose. These skills of conducting independent research and conveying that research in writing prepare the student of history for a wide variety of personal and professional pursuits.

New innovation can revolutionise studying history

At the same time, innovations in research methodology and communication are continually changing the field of history. For example, QGIS mapping software has provided historians with new ways of analyzing spatial data, and of presenting their research to students and to the public. Primary sources, such as ancient manuscripts and delicate artefacts can be preserved in digital form and made available online. Historical research can now be presented to the public through interactive websites and other forms of “digital history.” There is, thus, an increasingly broad range of opportunities to approach the field of history as a researcher and to present that research creatively to a broad audience.

Contributor Profile

Associate Professor
School of Sciences and Humanities, Nazarbayev University Department of History, Philosophy, and Religious Studies Nazarbayev University
Phone: +7 7172 706 688
Email: ssh@nu.edu.kz
Website: Visit Website

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