At the end of a long and tedious history class, some of us might have thought “this is boring – when am I ever going to need to know when the first battle of Panipat happened?” (1526, by the way). The history we are taught in our classrooms can feel like an endless barrage of names and dates, battles and wars, historical figures and political leaders. Who cares, right?
Sure, those things happened, and yes they’re important, but is history just knowing information about what happened? Why is studying History important in the first place?
History is so much more than just an event and a date, and maybe a war here and there. History shows us why things happen and how things happen; how we go from knights and castles to tanks and bunkers; how empires are built and how they are torn down; how states are founded and how they fall. History is a story: the story of conquest and of conquerors, of empires and emperors, of exploration and adventure, of love and betrayal, of trust and deception. History fills our human need for tales about ourselves and about the things that we have done. History is every bit as fantastic and as exciting as a novel. You need to look no further than the Russian Tsars, the Egyptian Pharaohs, or the Indian Revolution to see that history is a thrilling tale.
It’s a common misperception that studying history simply involves remembering people, events, key dates, and places etc. The who, what, when and where types of questions are just the start of it. Historians are far more interested in exploring the how and why questions – that is, interpreting events to better understand how they unfolded and why they occurred. So, historians typically reach agreement on the general “facts” surrounding a historical event but then can interpret things very differently.
Take, for instance, the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy
Everyone knows that he was shot during a motorcade in Dallas on 22 November 1963. But was Lee Harvey Oswald the perpetrator? If so, did he act alone or was there another shooter? Or was Oswald a “patsy” as part of a cover-up? Historians spend most of their careers debating (or arguing!) with one another.
Everything we do, everything we use, everything else we study is the product of a complex set of causes, ideas, and practices. Even the material we learn in other courses has history. There is nothing that cannot become grist for the historian’s mill. For instance, have you ever wondered what the history of the word ‘OK’ is? Or have you ever wondered how the evolution of television took place? Or even the mystery of the pyramids in Egypt?
Studying the diversity of human experience helps us appreciate cultures, ideas, and traditions that are not our own – and to recognize them as meaningful products of specific times and places. History helps us realize how different our lived experience is from that of our ancestors, yet how similar we are in our goals and values.
History has so many practical uses that it’s easy to forget that history is also a story, a thrilling adventure that takes place across the world and through the ages. This story encompasses the great empires of India, China and Rome, the conquests of Alexander the Great and Napoleon, the explorations of Marco Polo, and the expulsion of the British Raj from India. It’s a story of romance in the royal courts of Europe, of honor in the Japanese samurai. There is the devastation and tragedy of two World Wars, the rise and fall of dictators and oppressors, and the fight for rights and liberties in a world of abuses. History is a tale that spans the entire human experience, and it is a tale in which we all have a part to play.
Whenever questions are asked about what we can learn from history, it invariably leads to philosopher George Santayana’s oft-quoted aphorism: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. Studying history enables us to develop a better understanding of the world in which we live. Building knowledge and understanding of historical events and trends, especially over the past century, enables us to develop a much greater appreciation for current events today. And if we heed Santayana’s warning, then remembering history – and learning important lessons from it – should help us to avoid previous mistakes and prevent previous misdeeds from happening again.
Raza has been writing since 2008, be it fiction, poetry, or articles on science, politics, and history. He believes that words can change the world, and he uses them to inspire and empower people through his writing. When he is not working, he is watching nature documentaries or playing with his cats.
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