History is the study of past events and their causes. The word is derived from the Latin “historia”, meaning story, or record, of the past. Historians work to understand past events by studying records and other evidence—everything from written documents, artifacts, and archaeological sites to oral accounts and genetic markers. Historians also analyze and interpret those materials to make sense of the past. This understanding of the past gives historians a perspective on current issues, such as the role of race and gender in politics, and helps them develop arguments about how and why we should change our course.
Historians do not perform heart transplants or improve highway design; in a society that expects education to serve useful purposes, the value of historical study can be hard to define. History is valuable because it teaches us how to think about and evaluate the evidence of our past—not just what happened, but why it happened. It also allows us to look at the world with more empathy for those who came before us, and it enables us to learn from our mistakes.
Many people remember their high school classes as a time of rote memorization—names, dates, and places. While a certain amount of memorization is still necessary for passing tests and writing papers, learning history today should involve more than remembering facts. It is about making connections and understanding not just what happened, but why it happened, how that event or era changed the world, and what impact that change had on people. To do this, you must become comfortable reading creatively and imagining yourself in the shoes of the people whose actions or decisions led to specific outcomes.
The study of history also teaches you how to distinguish between fact and opinion. It is easy to confuse these two when reading secondary sources, such as textbooks or biographies. When studying primary sources, such as letters, diaries, or journals, it is important to remember that the authors of these resources had their own views and biases, just like you do. You will need to be able to assess what is fact and what is opinion and decide which opinions to trust.
Lastly, the study of history teaches you how to navigate social change and avoid the traps that have plagued other societies. It is important to understand how major upheavals, such as war and economic disruption, play out in different countries so that you can be prepared when it occurs in your own. This knowledge also helps you avoid believing in conspiracy theories, which tend to spread more quickly during stressful, chaotic times and can lead to real-world violence. Historians also teach you to think critically about your own beliefs and assumptions, allowing you to assess and dispel the false analogies that so often underlie ill-considered action in our world.