History as a subject and a study is a highly interesting affair. Despite concerning the past, it continues to impact the present. History tells us about both sides of humanity- the highs and the lows. It even holds sway about how we think about the future. Historians have challenged the perceptions of the past through interesting historical research. But to really get to the significant part and understand why is history important, we have to address the question inevitably:
What Is History?
One has to be a bit comprehensive here. There are several ways to define the term ‘history.’ The word itself comes from the Greek root ‘history, meaning ‘wise man. History then derives from ‘historia in Latin, which loosely translates to ‘investigation.’ History is also defined as what happened in the past. That is, indeed, putting it in its absolutely basic essence.
Yet, if one thinks about it a bit more, one realizes that history is much more than ‘the past.’ History is more than simply learning about past events, about key dates, about rulers and wars. It is also about the how and why of a historical event- since it needs that logical precedence. If it were not so, then history would be no more than a mere fable, something told and digested by the listener. Time and change are powerful ideas linked to History. Even more interesting is that history itself is a never-ending process, like time. The present will become the past for future generations of historians to examine in historical study.
Thus one has to move beyond the previous meaning of history since that is too simplistic a definition to try and understand the way things are. History then is all the above definitions but also something more than them. It is by combining all the different shades of meaning that we arrive at the complete picture. The picture being-
History is an investigation of how change occurs over time, from past to present. It helps understand how something that happened relates to something which is happening. It links the past to the present.
With that out of the way, here is why the study of history is important for us.
Why Is History Important?
1. History Gives Us A Sense of Identity And Meaning.
We as human beings draw meaning from our culture, society, family, etc., and identify ourselves on such meanings. Reading history is important for understanding how identity emerges and has been used by people over time. It helps us make sense of how what we identify with came to be in the first place. This makes history important as a factor governing our attitudes and lives.
2. History Is All Around Us.
History as an influencing factor is present all around us. Communities and individuals look at history to create a shared sense of identity. The structure of present-day society, politics, economics, etc., is best understood through history. The way present-day nations are organized and run, how society operates, how religion draws meaning, how we comprehend the world all can be understood by history. We as social beings ourselves are living histories- connected to our complex cultures and societies. Monuments, cities, nations, traditions, customs, festivals all form what can be described as living histories.
3. History Brings Us Together Beyond Artificial Boundaries And Teaches Us About Human Nature.
History is the sum of all human experience and knowledge, like a collective memory. It connects us as a species. It connects all that we have achieved as a species. History connects people of different communities and backgrounds. It forges connections between people, whether they are far apart or close by. It helps us see other people as something beyond their national loyalty and makes one look at human nature universally. It creates a sense of empathy and understanding amongst people. Lately, since the past several decades, there has been a major change in the way history is taught at universities- historians and teachers are now looking beyond merely what the books and records tell us. They are seeking to understand the world through popular movements, changes in culture, environment, etc.
4. It Helps You Understand Biases.
History informs us. Different people worldwide have distinctive cultures and traditions that arise from being born in the same society. Culture itself evolves with time. Yet, generalizations and stereotypical “half-truths” exist about other cultures and people. For a large part of human history and world history, people born in a society or culture often stayed within it all their lives. But over time, as the world got smaller and more connected, human beings from diverse cultures with varying ideas interacted with one another and developed certain ideas about other cultures. This also led to biases and discriminations developing, which still pervade in the modern world. Reading history helps one understand the biases present in different cultures and perspectives, be it religious, national, or racial. Understanding how these biases form over time is an important step towards eliminating them. This is an important part of identity history.
5. It Makes Us Politically Aware.
Delving into the study of history opens one’s perception of biases, rhetoric, narratives, etc., employed by political organizations. Studying history makes us cognizant that nothing is black and white. Still, rather shades of grey- making us aware of caveats, nuances, and complexities that apply to the present. It is one of the several useful skills that we can develop by paying attention to the inferences drawn from past events. In other words, history is important because it makes us knowledgeable, thus encouraging informed citizenship. One can identify warning signs of political doctrines which spread fear, hatred, misinformation, and discrimination as propaganda against their political opponents rather than raising critical questions and creating room for public debate.
6. It Helps Us Define What ‘Progress’ Is.
By understanding and studying the past, we get a sense of what progress means for different people. Studying history helps us understand the needs of society and human development associated with it in the larger historical change. With a good understanding of history, one connects things from the past to the present. Historical research helps us analyze such connections and the available data to understand what has successfully worked and what has not; it brings to knowledge the challenges faced by ordinary people in the past, thus helping us plan better for the future.
7. It Encourages Critical Thinking.
A knowledge of history makes one question ideas and practices. It aids in developing a critical outlook to question the state of things around us. With the right questions being asked, society is nearer to the right answers. Democracy, worker’s rights, secularism, desegregation, freedom of speech, etc., all have come about by struggles led by the people following such processes of inquiry and critical examination of their surroundings. The present owes much to the past. Moreover, a critical understanding helps us understand that not all is black and white but has nuances and that no idea is unquestionable. This history also helps us evaluate war, government policies and speak out against injustices we see through critical thinking. A few obvious examples of people coming together to ask questions and stage protests over climate change, women’s safety, racial discrimination and many such issues.
8. Reading History Aids Personal Development.
Studying history, one learns to be introspective. History is full of important thinkers and figures who greatly influenced societal development and philosophy. Ancient China, ancient India, ancient Greece, Rome, Arabia and many other countries, all produced figures who shaped history. These thinkers and personalities also teach us about personal growth, solving moral dilemmas, and thinking about changing our lives on their practical advice, thoughts, experiences, and ideas. With the study of history, one learns about various topics, broadens the mental horizon to become more thoughtful, and notices the subtleties and vagaries of human existence as a whole. This is also why many choose to study history and gain access to this knowledge rather than simply pursuing a history degree and becoming professional historians. History allows us to vicariously examine the trials and tribulations faced by humans in the past. Moreover, studying history also makes us embrace humility and empathize with other humans rather than overlook them and be too attached to ourselves. Thus, one also undergoes some amount of character development by studying history.
History is a rich field of information about the past, but it is relevant to the present and future. As stated earlier, history is an ongoing process, and we as members of society participate in it. Historical studies are evolving with time, too, as new and different ideas about history come up. The awareness of the reasons history should be studied also teaches us why history matters.
The following quotation best sums this up-
“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
– George Santayana.
Thus, this article answers the original question of why history is important. Here is an article discussing some momentous events in history.
Are there any other reasons you feel history is important? If so, please share in the comments section below.