I’m often asked by friends and relatives whether studying history is really all that important. ‘The past is the past, right?’, they’ll ask. My answer is absolutely not. Shakespeare’s Antonio in his play The Tempest said ‘what’s past is prologue.’ Essentially, the past is a preface to the future. History divulges to us not only how we have developed, but how we must move forward. While one may think I’m biased on the matter of history’s importance as a history student, I’m here to tell you why history is – and always will be – important.
- We can understand society.
All people and societies are history with their own personal histories. In studying history, you are studying the human condition. We are only where we are today because of our ancestors. It is important that we understand how our society came to be, and how we can further develop.
- We can understand change
History is basically one huge continuous documentation of our past: the successes and the follies. We can examine a chain of events and pin point where everything went wrong (or right). Take the First World War as an example. Imperialist ambitions and tensions were rife, but what sparked this conflict was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Why was it this event that triggered total war? It causes one to consider the nature of change and how one good or bad deed could essentially change the course of history.
- We are provided with a sense of identity.
There has been a recent surge in what is known as ‘identity politics’, and this shift itself shows us just how important history is. Our history grounds us in our roots. National, ethnic and cultural identity are important to many people and studying those identities – tracing your ancestry – can help you feel as though you belong as you have a better understanding of where you come from and, if you choose to embrace your identity, then a sense of belonging comes along too with those who share your philosophies and traditions.
- We can be inspired.
History can inspire us. It can inspire us to learn more about our past, or another culture’s past. It can be meaningful to a plethora of people in a plethora of ways. History can also inspire us to do some good in the world. In understanding how social standards or laws came to be, the effects they’ve had on people and how painstakingly hard people fought for them, we can tackle ongoing and current reform that we want. Knowledge is power.
- We can learn the warning signs.
As the saying goes, history repeats itself. However, by understanding the human nature and politics behind historical events, we are able to draw parallels between past and present and do whatever we can to prevent the previous bad event occurring again. I hate to whip out the old Hitler argument here as I firmly believe that if you resort to calling someone ‘Hitler’ you have just lost your argument and made your argument irrelevant, however, we can now detect public figures who draw parallels to him and trace the rise to power etc, leaving us with the power – not those who exploit circumstances to rise to power.
- We can think independently.
In a world where mass media affects our everyday lives, pushing their individual agendas onto the unsuspecting public, history provides us with the opportunity to think independently about things. Take the Middle East as an example. Do you ever read anything positive in the Daily Mail – for example – about the Middle East? Iraq, Syria etc is nothing but slandered by the press, but we as historians know better than to start name calling and throwing accusations. We know their history and are therefore more empathetic towards issues like the refugee crisis.
History opens the doors of perception. Use your knowledge to develop and do good in the world. And remember: