October 23, 2020

Why do we study history?


“Why do we study history?” is a question asked far more than it ought to be. It seems that whilst the inherent value of understanding a language or solving an equation comes across easily, the value to be extracted from studying and deeply engaging with history remains elusive to many. Though countless philosophers, historians, and historiographers have grappled with this question across the centuries, rarely do we see in Britain an understanding of the value that studying history brings to a student. An ever-increasing impetus to study STEM subjects, followed by recent comments by Rishi Sunak that those in arts jobs should “retrain” into more ‘productive’ industries seems to belie a serious issue. It can be very hard to answer the question “why do we study history”.

In the same way that maths allows students to better understand how many processes work in day to day life, or a foreign language allows students to understand those in other countries, I feel personally that the study of history provides students with a much-needed framework of understanding regarding the increasingly complex world they inhabit. The past, after all, is a foreign country, and the study of history gives students the necessary skills to traverse it, to engage with its inhabitants and detect its nuances, its injustices, and its complexity.

Most importantly of all, unlike a language or mathematics, the study of history allows students to develop the way they see the immediate world and those within it. When they have returned from that foreign country, the present takes a different shape. Studying the transatlantic slave trade and the Civil Rights movement frames the current Black Lives Matter protests not as a “moment” in the words of many politicians, but as part of a lineage of protest and struggle that Black people have endured for centuries.

Studying the history of the Middle East and of the European empires within it allows students to grasp why indeed we have fought so many wars in the region. Growing up in the years following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the entire Middle Eastern region has always seemed so alien, so irredeemably complicated and out of reach that starting to study it myself made me feel uncertain. In a way this is the essence of studying history; it allows students to question themselves and the world they inhabit. It’s what makes teaching the subjects I’m so passionate about such an exciting prospect. As a teacher of history you can help guide and share these revelations.

So. History is a language, of sorts. It gives students the magical opportunity that we rarely, if ever, can conjure up. That is, the ability to communicate with the past. The people, places, things, and ideas that have collectively shaped the present day. It’s a key to the past, but opens the door to the future. We study history, and should continue to study history, because this is essential.