Why History Is Important

Today’s post is a bit of an ode to a field of study dear to my heart.  As a history and politics lecturer I enjoy bringing stories alive for my students.  Here is why I believe so strongly in what I do.

 

History is important. The study of History is important. The knowledge of History, especially one’s own is important.

There is a statement I often bring to mind, yet I cannot quite remember where I first read it.  I want to say I came across this idea in a book by Joseph Stiglitz (former World Bank Chief Economist [1997 to 2000] and Nobel Laureate in Economics), but I would not testify under oath that that is from where it came!

One cannot separate economics, political science, and history. Politics is the control of the economy. History, when accurately and fully recorded, is that story. Yet the disciplines are taught separately and further sub-divided.

 

I find this idea to be particularly pertinent as a history teacher.  Most often my history students have no interest in Economics and Economics students rarely grace my classroom.  Yet, these subjects are so entwined and it is imperative that citizens of the world, particularly the next generation under whom we will be governed, understand this.

So as a teacher and a citizen of the world, let me attempt to explain what History is, and why it is important.

 

What is History?

 

History is not just facts and dates.  In truth, if the only thing a student took from a History class was a list of memorized dates of events then they would have learnt nothing.

History is a story.  It is the story of a particular place, person, society etc.  The actual actions that are recorded go down as fact.  However, the rationale for the actions, the effects of those actions, the effectiveness of those actions are perceived differently by different people.  For that reason, History cannot be just dates and facts, it must also be stories told from varied perspectives.

When my classes cover various wars or revolutions, one of the activities we do is to present the same event but from various perspectives.  Look at the War of the Triple Alliance, for example.  Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina (among others) had very different motives for engaging in that war.  What happened is fact but the why is debatable.  Only in understanding the different perspectives, can we really grasp why the war happened.

Information is not knowledge. The interpretation and analysis of information through mental frameworks that allow for critical and adaptable thinking is knowledge; and we all know, knowledge is power.  There is tremendous power in knowing your history.

 

History is important because it helps us…

 

  1. To understand our present

History is important because it helps us understand our present.  Why do we live the way we live? How did we as a species or as individual countries or societies get to our current state?  History can tell us why we speak the way we do, why we look the way we do (our ethnic make-up) and maybe even explain why we hold certain beliefs.

 

  1. To learn from our past mistakes

Why do we need to know how we arrived at our present? Because if we understand what came before, we can learn from the mistakes of our ancestors, ensure we do not repeat them and endeavor to achieve better societies.  How can we prevent another Holocaust or another World War if we don’t understand what caused them to happen in the first place?

 

  1. To be inspired by our past and influence the future

History is about today and tomorrow, not just the past.  The ability to create mini-computers that fit into our pockets didn’t happen overnight.  The transition to modern English didn’t happen simply with the change of a year.  The capability to carry out organ transplants didn’t suddenly spring up in some doctor’s mind and then magically become a reality.  Our present is based on steps taken in the past.  The evolution of those steps will take us to our future.  It is just as important to learn from the good in our history as from the bad.

 

  1. To understand and maybe accept our differences

History helps us understand the differences between cultures and peoples.  In understanding our differences, perhaps we can find ways to accept one another.

 

  1. To find our identity

History gives roots and grounding to people.  It can provide a sense of identity.  Think of the single person and the first ‘tribe’ to which he/she may belong- the family. Whether you like your family’s history or not, knowing it can give you the power to either embrace it or the determination to differentiate yourself from it.  But you have to know it first.  For some, knowing the history of their family is very important to finding a sense of identity.

 

  1. To claim our history and instill a sense of pride in the next generation

Like us, our ancestors made some mistakes, but there are also many positives in our history.  There is much for us to be proud about but if we don’t know it and claim it as our own it can be taken from us. I live in a relatively small country with a relatively short post-colonial history. I teach students from this background at the tertiary level. What I have found is that there is a knowledge gap of their own country’s history because it is not being effectively taught at the primary and secondary levels.  The result is students who know more about ‘foreign’ cultures than they know about their own.  What does this mean for the next generation? How will they learn? It is easy to think your culture is inferior to another’s if you do not appreciate it.  When you know and can take pride in your own history, you can better understand yourself and see value in another’s.

 

  1. To preserve essential knowledge

There is a field of study/ research called Traditional Knowledge (TK).  TK is particularly important for the preservation of indigenous knowledge.  The preservation of rituals, religion, language and even medicine is tied up in this field.  UNESCO proclaimed 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages in an effort to preserve over 2000 languages.  Imagine what has already been lost in the thousands that have already disappeared; the stories we will never know. What tales of the indigenous experience have been buried? The secrets that could have saved lives in our own time and societies.  A bit dramatic? Maybe, but we’ll never know.  In Australia, for example, there is currently an effort to promote Indigenous fire workshops, which focus on the indigenous use of ‘cool fires’ in fire management.  Some of this knowledge has already been lost, however.

 

  1. To foster political sensitivity and build stronger democracies

History is the collective story of a people or society.  Knowing these stories helps create informed citizens.  Informed citizens can participate in democratic societies and are able to effectively debate major issues. This helps society as a whole to continuously examine its core beliefs and possibly even challenge old beliefs that may no longer be admisible.

 

Economic changes produce social changes which furnish the context for political change.  It is these changes that we study in History.

-Modern Latin America by Thomas Skidmore and Peter Smith-

 

My defence of the study of History is motivated by the fact that I do in fact teach it; but also by several recent events and subsequent discussions I’ve been part of concerning crises in the Latin American region:

  1. The migrant crisis out of Central America (which was touched on in The Northern Triangle post); and
  2. The Venezuelan crisis

Both of these are current day tragedies unfolding before our eyes, yet both find their beginnings not in this century but in the 20th and even 19th centuries.  To ensure that the events of today are curbed and never repeated, we must understand the history.  Stay tuned for some follow-up posts.

 

 

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I’m a Latin American Studies teacher, teaching Latin American History and Politics and Basic Spanish. I love reading, writing, teaching and travelling. 

2 thoughts on “Why History Is Important

  1. The interesting thought is that History ties all the Disciplines. To study something without History is like living life with no breathing, eating, nor thinking. Within all is a minute crumb of each inter-twined into the others. Why would you search for answers without a History for which is referenced? Great post.

    1. Thank you. That sums it up as well. It saddens me than many people think of history as a waste of time, as opposed to valuable, relevant knowledge.

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