Six Reasons why Studying History is Still Important (a cheat sheet for parents of reluctant students)

This won’t surprise anyone who knows me, but I was a history geek in school. Somewhere around sixth grade I realized that I loved history. In high school I was introduced to early choral music, the great English anthems of Byrd and Tallis, and suddenly my passion for history became more specific. I had met the love of my life, early choral music. As soon as I could after college I moved to London and spent my days attending choral Evensong services at Westminster Abbey, King’s College in Cambridge, St. Paul’s Cathedral. Sitting in the choir stalls where countless nameless worshippers had sat before me, I was home. Walking on the ancient stones, the edges worn by the millions of footfalls that came before mine, I was humbled and reminded that I was part of this great big web of Humanity, of Something Bigger Than Myself.

I realize that not everyone shares my passion for history. When I first met my husband, who does advanced algebra for fun, he asked me what the point was of studying history. He truly didn’t understand how history could be useful in life, and why anyone would want to study it.

I had a hard time answering. I never really thought about it before, in the same way I don’t examine other automatic habits like, say, breathing. You study history because you’re alive. Period, done, end of.

But I know that, for many people, especially students looking at their required courses, “it’s obvious why you study history” isn’t the best answer. There are always the quotes about how those who don’t understand history are doomed to repeat it, but they meant very little to me. So, it’s in the spirit of sharing my passion, and why I think it’s important, that I’ve compiled this list of the Top Six Reasons Why History Isn’t Just Dead People and Dates.

  1. History Transports You To Other Worlds

There are lots of ways to be transported to other worlds. Before I had a baby, I regularly visited the world of Skyrim on our playstation, where I indulged in rising through the ranks of the Thieves Guild, killing dragons, and jumping off waterfalls. Books are another portal through which you can be transported into new worlds, and conveniently enough, there are lots of great books (and video games) about history.

The thing about history is that it transports you to worlds that actually existed. As much as I love Skyrim, or fantasy books, they aren’t real. But the world of the viking invasions in northeastern England, that was real. The Roman centurions standing guard outside the amphitheater where the gladiators would fight to the death in central London? Real. A pregnant and frightened Elizabeth Woodville seeking sanctuary in Westminster Abbey while her husband, King Edward IV fought for his life and then had to leave the country and plan his comeback to rescue his throne and Queen? Also real. These worlds existed, and these stories actually happened. And their realness, the very fact that you can walk in the footsteps of these people and follow their lives, makes it all the more compelling.

Which leads me to…

2. History is full of great stories

The most dramatic reality tv has nothing on the Wars of the Roses, when two families hated each other so much they spent fifty years killing each other, culminating in the murder of the young heir to the throne and his brother, and paving the way for an upstart Welsh branch of distant cousins to claim the throne and found an entirely new dynasty, the Tudors. The Bachelor isn’t Chris Soules, but Henry VIII, of that same Tudor dynasty, who, in an effort to find a true love who would give him a male heir, went through six wives, killed two of them, and fundamentally changed the church in England, ushering in the Protestant Reformation.

And these are all from just one small island in one tiny time period. The span of history is enormous, and full of stories that engage and enthrall. And they all actually happened. You can go to archives and see the letters the individuals wrote describing the events. You can read eyewitness accounts of the killing of kings, and the revolutions of common people, the religious massacres or the sex scandals. All real. Not scripted reality tv.

Also…

3. Everything has a history

Whatever you’re into, it has a history. Understanding its history can help you understand the subject better, and dive deeper into your passions. If you’re into math, understanding the race to claim the invention of calculus between Newton and Leibniz can give you a deeper appreciation of the equations that give you so much joy. Into technology? Learn about how society changed during the Industrial Revolution.

By default, no matter what your own particular passion is, be it House of Cards or punk rock or roller skating, it has a history. It has a starting point at which someone (or multiple someones) thought it was a good idea, and decided to pursue it. Learning about that history can help you know your passions better, can make you more accomplished at them.

Next…

4. History Teaches Empathy

Despite the fact that we live in an insta-share world where everyone seems to know everything about everyone else, the ability to filter out the news we see and the opinions we read seems to have made us a less understanding and empathetic society. We file people into categories — this person watches Fox News, this one likes Jon Stewart. This one made their profile picture a rainbow back in June, that one tweeted an article in support of the Duggar family. And based on these snippets and posts, we put them into mental drawers labeled, “cool,” or “not someone I want to have Thanksgiving dinner with.”

We tend to forget that we’re all just people, doing the best we can with the information we have in the communities in which we were raised.

History, more than most subjects, teaches you to understand the motives of others. If you can look at an event in history that has several distinct sides, and understand what each of the sides wanted, you can then take that skill into your life and start to understand the motivations of the people you know. You can start to see past the surface actions to what was driving them.

When you can say something like, “Well, I might not agree with the Catholics who were plotting to put Mary Queen of Scots on the throne, but I kind of see their point,” it’s not a very big stretch to be able to say, “ok, I disagree with what the city council did, but I understand where they were coming from.”

Being able to understand what someone is thinking isn’t the same as agreeing with them. But it gives you a place from which to start honest communication. Until you can truly understand what the motivations are of the opposition, you will never be able to truly argue against it — how can you argue for or against something you don’t understand?

Which brings me to….

5. History Connects You to a Global Community

As much as we’re all connected now, we don’t have the same networks of family around us that most of humanity has had for millennia. For the next year while we’re living in Spain, my daughter and I need to get on a plane to see her grandparents. It’s an odd paradox that we can be so connected with facebook and skype, yet we are still separate from our loved ones.

Learning about history instantly connects you to all the people who came before you. The people who sat in your desk in school and daydreamed the way you do. The people who lived in your house and raised a family and grew a garden. The people who shopped at the mall when it first opened in the 60's. The ones who walked the sidewalks you walk a hundred years ago. The people buried in the graveyard, all of whom had stories and loves and dreams, some of which came true, and others that broke their hearts.

Everywhere you look there is history, there is a story that connects you to that place, across the decades and centuries. It is both awe-inspiring, and humbling to consider that a hundred years ago a woman very much like me sat in the room in which I’m sitting, and thought about the best way to care for her children the way I think about the best way to care for my daughter. She wondered whether the dreams she held in her heart would ever come true, the way I wonder whether I will ever be able to accomplish what is important to me.

We’re all tied together in this big web of humanity.

And finally…

6. History Shows You Something Bigger Than Yourself — and Inspires You to Achieve While You Can

I hear a lot of people talking about the sense of entitlement that kids have these days. I’ll admit, I’ve sometimes had thoughts that veered dangerously close to, “back in my day…” and almost included walking three miles in the snow to go to school — uphill both ways.

Knowing history reminds you that you are not, in fact, the center of the universe. In the same vein as the above-mentioned connection to humanity, you can walk down the street in my hometown and visit places like the Fulton Opera House where actors took the stage and were feted with flowers and wine nearly two hundred years ago. They were celebrities then, and yet today we can’t name them - unless we are intimately connected with the local historic societies.

It can feel depressing, this reminder that in the end we return to dust (or whatever afterlife our religious traditions teach us), and will be lucky to be remembered by our families and close friends, and even that won’t last. Even becoming President doesn’t guarantee immortality. How many of us remember anything about Chester Arthur?

At the same time, it can be a liberating inspiration to embrace life. In a handful of decades, no one who is reading this now is going to be alive to remember it. Life is short, and even the most famous and popular people of previous generations are forgotten today. So while you’re not the center of the universe and your existence is a fleeting blip, you do have an enormous honor and gift — a handful of decades in which you can make your mark and live your passions, pursue your dreams, figure out who you are and be true to it.

…I can’t think of many more valuable lessons for students just starting out in their lives than that.

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