Why Study History?: An Opinion Piece

As you may have guessed, history is a personal passion of mine. I love to study all sorts of time periods and see how people lived and thought in distant cultures long past. Something about learning about past perspectives and events that helped shape what we think and who we are today just fascinates me. It wasn’t for any quote “real world” practical knowledge like for say, getting A’s in school or landing a high paying career, my passion for history seemed to just come naturally, and I don’t really remember what exactly inspired me to love history. However, I do know that my most solid memories of loving history came around when I was in 3rd grade. It has always been hard to exactly articulate why I find it so intriguing to study history, and especially a practical purpose for it. History, like the arts has gotten a bad rap when it comes to being valued on the same level as other jobs. The more abstract and “already been done” nature of history makes it a prime target for criticism, saying that history is a waste of a career or it may be interesting, but has little practical use in every day contemporary life. Sure, there’s no denying the past has shaped the present, but in terms of functioning in society now, many believe that we don’t need to focus on then. I myself have wrestled with this issue, because while history is an exciting and intriguing passion of mine personally, I do sometimes wonder what value it has for me in the here and now and in society. Many careers in history and archaeology are not valued and pay very little. It is often hard to come across those fields in the job market and many need years of prior experience and are not enough to live on. Unfortunately because of that, history may only remain a hobby for me.

However, I’ve thought more and read more perspectives on how history does and can benefit society today. I’ll share my personal thoughts first, and then highlight some other insightful perspectives. In my experience, the history I’ve researched has shaped my opinions on many contemporary matters and attitudes. The majority of popular attitudes with whom I don’t agree with I don’t on mostly historical grounds. For example, the Pledge of Allegiance is revered my many people in the US and try to enforce it on patriotic grounds. I myself am more critical of it and a big part of it’s history influenced my perspective. The pledge itself was written by Francis Bellamy, to sell more US flags. Basically, it was all a big marketing ploy, in short! (See my post on it for more details). Knowing that about its original intent, now I find it funny that so many treat it with such solemn reverence and guilt trip others into joining in. History also comes to my aid when people select certain events to make some huge fuss about but don’t include the whole scope of other related issues. When you study a broader history then just popular culture’s selected history, you can realize that “oh, event X is quite similar to event Y and Z and isn’t one unique incident out of the blue!” or “Perhaps it WAS our fault because we caused event W that triggered event X!” Sometimes even “Considering the hardships faced by people in the past, just maybe this one tragic event in our lives can be put into perspective and wasn’t the worst thing in the history of the entire planet!…” Think of how we focus on how hard we had it in WWII, yet often fail to mention what happened to Europe after, for an example. A lot of times, we are so centered on what is relevant to us alone we develop this kind of social narcissism and think that our events and those that we deem to be significant are the worst things EVER excluding anyone else’s tragedies past and present. I think of it as the analogy of having tunnel vision, only viewing something from one angle, isolated, but history makes you see the whole picture, and gives you a new perspective.

Other perspectives give similar arguments. One blog, From The Garden Into The City points out that history can help further peace and tolerance for others.

“A historical education is not important just for the sake of antiquarianism or having some picture of the past, although these have some value on their own, but for justice and tolerance and humanity as a species. While this may sound excessive, the main skill history teaches is deconstruction, which extends beyond history itself and to everything around us. It’s difficult to demonize another group of human beings for trait X when you see that trait elsewhere and realize that the claims made about that group have no basis in reality. It’s difficult to claim nationalistic exclusivity when you realize that the people you’re supposedly claiming ancestry from had no conceptions of group solidarity in any way that you do.  It’s difficult to blame some religion for something when you see that the cause of the event is enmeshed in another dozen critical factors. It’s difficult to hate another culture when you’ve looked at your own from the outside and have come to understand that maybe it doesn’t have all the answers. It’s difficult to idolize another culture that glorified horrific things. The conclusion to this repetitious series of points is that properly done, history allows one to understand others and to reserve judgement until all the evidence has been critically analyzed and reviewed. Hopefully, by that point, it will be clear that history is rarely black and white and some appreciation for the complexity will be gained. – History allows us to understand that others are complex and fascinating, and by doing justice to the past we create the mindset needed to bring justice to those who need it today. It’s difficult to hate when you come to see that atrocity breeds atrocity and hate breeds hate, and that the “enemy” may not be very different at all.” (From The Garden Into The City)

I fully agree with that insightful point, and believe that component helps serve society as a whole. Being able to see the bigger picture beyond your own bias and another’s point of view helps further break the cycle of violence and intolerance.

Even if that isn’t enough, I feel studying history just for the pleasure of it intrigues my mind well enough on it’s own. Just thinking about people who have lived in different cultures and dressed different and viewed the world uniquely captivate me. The present is like the tunnel vision for me, and history enriches and expands my view to full vision. It’s the coolest thing for me to just learn about what was behind what makes today today and what other people think with a past perspective. I still think a full career in history is not feasible for my goals in life in the present world, but I believe it will forever be a life long hobby and passion.

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About persnicketythecat

I like ancient and medieval history!
This entry was posted in Helping Make History More Interesting, Opinion Piece. Bookmark the permalink.

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