- Education and Science
Why Study History?
Why Should Students Study History?
It is certainly more possible to get through daily life without much knowledge of history than it is with a subject like math, or grammar. With math particularly, unlike history, there is just one correct answer. It is never subjective or open to interpretation. Math is a practical skill that we use in our lives every day.
However, it is essential to understand where we have been, and to have a sense of where we fit into the world. Our knowledge of history influences our perception of ourselves as humans, and it defines our identities as nations.
Objective History - Is it Even Possible?
Each human being interprets events though the lens of his own subconscious biases and perspectives. In addition to this, when studying the past, historians are dependent upon the writings and observations of others who were also influenced by their own preconceived ideas. Can any historian be truly objective?
This is why documentation of events is essential. Even that can be faked or spun to confirm a particular viewpoint. Even without outright fabrication, when certain parts of a story are emphasized and others are left out, it can lead to misconceptions. Yet, it is not possible to include every detail. In order to make sense of history, historians must make value judgments as to what information is significant. These decisions are often subjective. Two different, well-meaning and diligent historians, given the same data, might make different choices.
The purpose of studying history should be more than memorizing names and dates, but to learn to think critically about the events of the past in order to discern their importance and learn the lessons they have to teach.
Perspective is Everything
Modern day police will tell you that when the same event is recounted by two different eyewitnesses, they will see the same event differently depending upon their perspective. This applies to historical events as well. The battle of the Little Big Horn would have been perceived very differently by a Cavalry officer, than by an Indian brave.
History is not a fixed thing, though the facts may not change, our analysis of the events of the past are what allow us to learn from it.
The passage of time can sometimes allow us to take a broader view, and place events in a more appropriate context. Take the issue of slavery in the US. Before the Civil War, half of the country was slave, and half free. It was an issue that citizens disagreed on. People who were considered good people could disagree; people who were friends could be on opposite sides of the issue.
In modern times, most people see that there is only one right answer. Slavery was wrong. Does that mean that everyone who owned slaves, or supported the rights of others to own slaves was a bad person? Many of the founding fathers of our country owned slaves. It was legal, and not seen as immoral in their time.
The history lessons taught to children in school are, in part by necessity, simplified and sanitized. They minimize or ignore some of the less flattering incidents. The story tends to be drawn in black and white, without nuance. Every historical figure is either hero or villain, often resembling myth more than reality. It's sad, because not only is the whole messy, complicated story more instructive, it's more interesting. But perhaps this would not build the kind of blind national pride that may be considered desirable in a citizen.
WWII era Anti-Japanese Cartoon
Those Who Tell the Stories Rule the World— Plato
Words Have Great Power
The intentional distortion of history can easily be used to influence public sentiment, to demonize an enemy, or mobilize support for military action. We consider ourselves fortunate here in the US that our ideal, and the law of the land, is free speech and freedom of the press.
This does not mean that we are immune to this type of manipulation. We don't always get the whole story, but at least we are free to discuss and debate controversial issues which may be inconvenient to our government.
Perhaps because we take this openness for granted, we are sometimes unaware of how the way information is presented to us can influence our thoughts and opinions.
© 2012 Sherry Hewins