Why Study History?

Wherever you travel in today’s world, you will find people who are attracted to the study of History, because History helps us to understand who we are and what is our place in the world.

History explores the relationship between two universal aspects of our human experience: time and culture. Time shapes everything we do and think about; culture influences our thoughts and actions in subtle, sometimes unrecognizable ways. Cultures exist within societies that are made up of a complex combination of political and economic institutions, social norms and practices, and systems of knowledge and beliefs that a society creates in order to survive and flourish.

Because History is the study of culture in time, it is one of the most interdisciplinary fields of study in any college or university. It is about how politics, economics, science, art, literature, philosophy, and religion have been woven together over time to create the cultures that make up today’s world. History helps us understand why societies developed as they did and what influences shape their present and future.

Two essays posted on the American Historical Association website provide some thoughtful reflections on the importance of studying history as part of a liberal arts education and as preparation for a variety of careers. The first one entitled “Why Study History?” was written by Peter N. Stearns. The second, also called “Why Study History,” was written by William H. McNeill. Another interesting article called “All People Are Living Histories—Which is Why History Matters” by Penelope Corfield.

In today’s fast-paced, ever-changing world, a History major will give you important content for understanding the world in which we live. It will also help you acquire the critical thinking, communication, and problem-solving skills necessary for professional and personal success. To further diversify your education, you can pair your History major with courses in Political Science, International Studies, Geography, English, Catholic Studies, Communication and Journalism, American Culture and Difference, Justice and Peace Studies, Women’s Studies, and even Philosophy or Theology.

History majors may also participate in the Renaissance Program Professional Minor. When you graduate, if you discover that you need further professional education, you can take additional undergraduate Business courses for free.

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Question: With today's computers and smart phones, historical information is available at the click of a button. Do students really need to study history anymore?

David Williard: Many people think history is just about mem­orizing facts, but I want my students to learn to think critically about why people - whether presidents or ordinary, run-of-the-mill citizens – made the choices they did by paying careful attention to the economic, cultural, social and political dimensions of the world in which they lived. In so doing, my students can begin to see the past as a complex relationship between broader societal influences and individual choices. Since this same dynamic affects our lives today, I hope they will become more reflective about the way they relate to their current world. If they leave my courses recognizing that we cannot make informed, meaningful choices without under­standing the context of our own lives and society, and have some grasp of how we can do this, then my students will have met my most important learning goal.

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Question: Why study the history of the Middle East or any other part of the world? Students might say these faraway places don’t really affect them.

Hasan Karatas: The benefits of studying history of the Middle East ranges from gaining a better perspective on the relationship between the United States and the Middle Eastern countries to re-evaluation of our energy and foreign policies.  But I believe the most significant outcome of the study of the Middle Eastern history is a greater understanding of ourselves.  We as human being most often tend to dehumanize the people who are not like ourselves.  It is an instinct that exists in all of us in varying degrees and gives us the illusion of safety.  This instinct automatically takes over, especially when those people are separated from us by time, geographical distance and culture.

By offering courses on Middle Eastern, East Asian, Eastern European and Atlantic World histories, our department aims to examine our tendency to dehumanize the societies of the past or of distant regions by underlining their respective historical contexts.  In this way we hope to make clearer the link between us and them and underline the common humanity in all of us.  For example, I always tell the story of Muslims encountering the Greek philosophy in the ninth century.  Instead of outright denial as the work of pagans, Muslim scholars embraced and challenged the ideas of the Greek philosophers because they were confident in their own values.  We come across different perspectives almost every day in our lives.  If we are confident in our values, why be scared of those who are different from ourselves and shut down our minds?  We are all richer for learning about our connectedness to others.