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“Why History?"

By Kai Siallagan


If you’re anything like many history students, you’ve probably heard the question “why

history?” This question takes on many forms, such as “why are studying history?”, or “what are you planning on doing with history?”, and perhaps most tongue-in-cheek-“arts-are-an-easy-A” of all, “what is a history degree even good for?” And if you’re anything like many history students, the answer to these questions seems to remain ever-elusive.

If you’re hoping this article will resolve your awkward encounters with relatives during Thanksgiving dinner, I regret that such powers are beyond my abilities. Nor have I been recruited to induct unsuspecting prospective students into what some astute, outside observers term the most widely accepted pyramid scheme in Western society (i.e., advanced academic study in the humanities). In fact, I am not even going to try to justify why history is “actually” a “useful” degree; education in itself should not need a justification for expected monetary returns (although, I concede the financial investment that attending university entails usually do). In any case, there are many reasons one could provide for choosing to study history, but I do not think it necessary to repeat them here.

To begin to answer that dreaded three-letter word “why”, I pose the (rhetorical) question, “what is history but the advanced study of context?” All fields of sociology, humanities, philosophy, and even sciences and business all rely on our interpretations of the world around us, which are formed through our personal and collective relationships to knowledge. And knowledge always has a temporal aspect; it is something that is collected, constructed, shared, and passed-down. How can we discuss the nature of morality without knowing of how people before us have acted? How can we construct and conduct analyses of technical charts in the stock market without knowing how similar patterns have played out in the past? Or assess any economic, political, and social phenomena without understanding their precedents? In this sense, the epistemic root of all forms of knowledge can be tied to our memories of the past. History is thus the study of the patterns that shape our present reality and understandings of the world; our relationships with personal and collective histories influence our worldviews and epistemologies in general.

I do not intend to overextend the scope of what "history" entails nor do I want to discount other studies’ value and importance in their own rights. Rather, I think it is important to remind ourselves that the study of history is not an academic process abstracted from “the real world”, but is instead as integral to our realities as air and water. To study history is to understand ourselves, our worldviews, our positionalities, and our world better, and I do not think that one can justifiable say these pursuits are unimportant. Therefore—and with the risk of sounding extremely patronising—whether a historian or not, we can all benefit from being students of history.

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