Studying History Is Important After All

The retired professor started his lecture by saying that it was going to be his last lecture – ever. He was finishing his career before us, and he started with this story:

“A student once asked me, ‘What is history going to do for me when I graduate,’ and I said, ‘No!  Don’t ask ‘what can it do for me later, but ask, What will history do to me before I graduate.'”

I loved it. People have been criticizing the humanities a lot, these days, and it would be a shame if we forgot the importance of studying our past, our art, and our culture.

And, yes, it does have practical value. Did you know that economics is a humanities course? Not only that, but it’s best understood alongside history. How about Philosophy? It sounds like a useless major, but did you know that Plato’s Republic, the cornerstone of Western philosophy, is a book that is (mostly) about how a state can be run justly? (If I were ever on trial for a crime I didn’t commit, it would make me glad to know that the judge had read Plato.) An understanding of ethics and righteous law-making is central to western philosophy in every century, so a politician, lawyer, or activist will most definitely benefit from having a background in philosophy.

Don’t forget that students of the humanities must usually learn a foreign language, or two. Americans are often criticized for not knowing other languages, and its the humanities students who are required to break this mold.

But what about history; does it matter? Imagine a diplomat who hadn’t studied international history, or a governor who did not know how his state was founded. It’s important that the leaders of our communities and nations understand our own past and the cultures that surround us. This sort of thing is learned in history classes.

The Christian community has learned the importance of this; as our culture drifts further and further away from antiquity, we need linguists and historians to help us understand the context in which the Bible was written. Church history is also a difficult subject that only makes sense when we know how the old world worked – something that is impossible without the humanities.

On a more “everyday” level, I think that most people appreciate the humanities more than they realize. Have you ever enjoyed a Ken Burns documentary, or a History Channel special on the pyramids? What are you going to do with that? How is a documentary about Jazz going to help you sell auto parts, or design software? It won’t, but the enlightenment that comes from such understanding is valuable.

Then again, maybe these things are more practical than we think. Humanities courses teach us critical thinking skills, because each text/document/piece of artwork requires deep study to comprehend fully. Someone who has taken the time to really understand the Magna Carta in its historical context is someone who can apply that problem-solving skill to whatever field they decide to work in. A successful humanities student is not just someone who has memorized a set of obscure dates and stories, but they’ve learned to think around corners and solve complex problems alongside some of the world’s most celebrated thinkers. That is not a useless skill.

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