History is the discipline of studying past events in written documents, archaeological remains and other evidence. Historians study the discovery, collection, organization, presentation and interpretation of these sources. They also study the nature and meaning of human culture. History is a complex subject that has many different uses in society.
The main reason for people to study history is to understand the world around them. People who do not know their own heritage will have trouble understanding their place in the world and how they relate to the cultures of other people. Historians seek to understand how different cultural events have shaped the present world and how these factors can be influenced by the choices we make.
People also study history to understand how other people have worked through the challenges of life. They can find inspiration from famous historical figures who have been able to rise to great heights in spite of their adversities. They can also learn about ordinary people who have managed to cope with very difficult personal, ethical or moral challenges and come through successfully.
There is a popular belief that the world of the past is somehow “behind us” in some way and that the future will be the same as it has been in the past. This is a dangerous misconception. The problems of the past are not a reflection of the present, and the future is bound to be different from the past in a multitude of ways. Historians work hard to provide context and understanding in order to avoid making dangerous assumptions about the future.
A third reason for people to study history is the almost poetic appeal of the past. Many people have a passion for history, and it is this that fuels a great deal of the research and writing that makes up history. Practically all the world’s major tourist traps are based on historical attractions – the Tower of London, San Gimignano in Tuscany or Ephesus in Turkey – and these places are popular in large part because of the contextual knowledge that historians have provided for them. This sort of research is not just useful but downright essential for a properly functioning society.
Historians are also concerned with the fact that history is a record of what has been done. This can be used as a tool to identify the flaws in certain systems of government, religion or economics. For example, if one era sees an expanding empire as necessary for the country’s growth, it is likely that other ages will feel differently about such expansion. This is a good thing, because it forces us to look at the facts of situations and to question whether our own assumptions might be flawed.
Many people are interested in history for purely academic reasons, too. They want to be able to explain their own ideas and perspectives on the past, so that they can engage with other people in meaningful discussion about how we should shape our future. In this sense, history is a kind of self-therapy. It can console and comfort by reminding us that, while traffic may be a nuisance, there have been far worse hardships in the past. It can also open up spaces of critical and imaginative inquiry that are often crowded out by narrower concerns.