The Purpose of History

I read a couple things this past week that caught my attention about my college major- history.  They left me a little…disappointed, actually a bit fearful both for the field of history and the humanities in general.  One was a new report on the History News Network that showed the number of college students majoring in history has continued to decline- or rather has fallen off a cliff since about 2009- over a 9% drop. The second which gave me pause was in the National Review about George Washington University decision to overhaul the requirements for its history majors- letting those not wanting to study for example U.S. history not being required to take World history or Western Civilization courses and vice-versa if they did not want to- and also eliminated a foreign language requirement.

First, I have no issue with eliminating foreign language requirements for history- especially if one is only wanting to concentrate on American history.  However, I think the study of history requires one to have an open mind.  I think a someone studying history should have to at least take general courses in both American and either World history or Western Civilization if they  are studying history in the United States.  Second, I can understand the decline in those majoring in history- our society, economy and educational system continue to not see the relevance of studying the past.However, if I may let me make an argument as to the benefits of studying history- whether one goes to college or not.

History is a discipline, interest, hobby, whatever you want to call it that goes across any other thing you can think of- because everything has a history.  Pick whatever you want it has a history- not just traditional politics or warfare- which is what most study in school and t0 bored to tears about.  Culture and society- absolutely.  Sports- it has it.  Fashion- ditto. Food Preservation- you want to talk about interesting.  It is an unlimited subject which that first and foremost requires one to have curiosity, to do research, build reading skills, and acts as a collective memory for society.  It covers not just the past, but also questions that are relevant to our world today.

I know that when a person goes into a bookstore by far the largest part of the history section is devoted to military history and don’t get me wrong there is nothing wrong with that. Like most who enjoy history in this country- I first became interested in reading every book I could get my hands on about the civil war and World War II.  I would however suggest to anyone to also pick up another book about history not specifically related to war, politics or biography. Want to know about regional and cultural differences in the U.S. and how they developed- look no further than David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed, the role of the environment in U.S. history- Mark Fiege’s Republic of Nature.  Want to look at the history of rural Americans and their interactions with large cities and government- a fascinating study is Karl Jacoby’s Crimes Against Nature . I think many people would be surprised by these works and about how they speak to issues in our world today.

I think to many people are left from school with a feeling that history is set in stone and that all those books on the shelves just regurgitate the same story- and I’ll admit some of them do- I mean really- do we need ten new biographies a year on Abraham Lincoln at this point? However here is the definition of history I was given and it makes it much more fascinating: History is the study of the past which society has chosen to remember and the way it has chosen to remember it.  Much more interesting than history is the study of the past period.  I am also worried by the two stories I read because of what it could mean in the future- especially if this trend continues as I suspect it probably will.  I know history cannot be used to predict the future.  That we use phrases like- “those who forget history are doomed to repeat it” and history continues to seem like it repeats.  However I am sure it will repeat itself if people no longer care enough to bother to pay it at least a little bit of attention.







Author: JeffThompson

The holder of an M.A. in history working on a Masters in Library and Information Science. A little curious about everything.

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