The word history comes from the Greek historia, which means inquiry or knowledge. The field of history studies the past through a combination of primary and secondary sources. A primary source is one that came into existence within the period of historical investigation. A primary source can be anything from a diary to a photograph or an artifact. Historians use these primary sources to write up a historical account. A secondary source is a work written by a historian who had no part in the events described in the article or book. Historians read and use secondary sources to learn how other scholars have interpreted the historical materials they are working with.
The main reason to study history is to gain a deeper understanding of the world we live in today. Historians can help us understand the many influences and factors that shape the world around us, including social, political, cultural, religious, environmental, economic, technological, and scientific developments. This knowledge can help us make better decisions in the present and avoid repeating mistakes made in the past.
Another reason to study history is that it can provide identity. Almost all modern nations encourage the study of history to give their people a sense of shared history and nationality. Moreover, individual families, communities, and institutions often use history to establish their own identities as well. Historians have a unique perspective on the past and can teach us about the formation of states, civilizations, cultures, and economies. They can also show how societies evolved while retaining their core identity and values.
When we learn about history, we can see how societies change over time and how different ideas and ideologies have influenced each other. We can also see how a society has progressed through stages like family into state, peasantry into city life, animism into monotheism, and mythology into philosophy. This knowledge can help us to predict the future, so that we can prepare for it.
Lastly, studying history can teach us how to evaluate the evidence presented by each side of an argument. Unlike other academic subjects, which may focus on rote memorization of names and dates, learning about history involves developing skills to analyze the evidence and come up with an informed opinion. The ability to critically examine what has happened in the past and compare it to current events is a vital skill that every person should possess.
In addition to these skills, students of history will develop an appreciation for the nuances and complexity of history. The fact that the study of history requires a deep reading of primary and secondary sources forces students to focus on the words, actions, thoughts, desires, and fears of particular individuals from the past. It is the ability to put these individual human elements in their proper context that makes history truly interesting and important to all. This ability is a valuable tool in a world that can become ever more confusing and chaotic.