Faculty of Arts

Why Study History?

To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to be always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history? Cicero
"The past is not dead. In fact, it's not even past." William Faulkner

Why should any of us bother learning about things that happened long ago in other places? Who cares about Marie Antoinette, the Cypress Hills massacre, Franklin Roosevelt, or English textile workers? Why think about how representative government and industrial capitalism arose? We are subjected to a daily barrage of information. Why add to our burden by studying the past? The simple answer is that the study of history is, in itself, worthwhile and is necessary for the education of responsible citizens and intelligent human beings.

Historical knowledge is our collective memory. Without individual memory, a person literally loses her or his identity. Imagine waking up one morning unable to tell total strangers from family members and friends! Collective memory is similar. Our daily lives may not be paralyzed by its absence, but ignorance of history - the absence of a collective memory - does deprive us of the best available guide for public action, especially in encounters with outsiders, whether the outsiders are another nation, another civilization, or some distinctive groups within our own national borders.

The value of history is perhaps most obvious when we study what happened in recent times. Today's circumstances clearly descend from those of yesterday. But the basic institutions that govern much of our daily lives took shape hundreds, even thousands of years ago. The Canadian government is such an institution; so are the world market, armies, and religious institutions. Many of the things that concern us today also concerned early hunter-gatherers, medieval clerics, soldiers of the American Civil War, and Canadian suffragists. Only with knowledge of the human experience can we truly understand our contemporary world.

Memory is not unalterable. With the passage of time, our personal experiences take on new meanings. What seems trivial today may turn out to be quite important; a disappointment may later reveal itself to be a blessing in disguise - all because of what happens later on. In the same way, our collective memory is constantly changing. Historians are always reinterpreting the past, asking new questions of the historical record, searching for new sources and finding new meanings in old sources. In these ways, they bring the perspective of new knowledge and experience to the study of the past. Thus, what we know and believe about history is always changing.

But if our understanding of the past is necessarily tentative, does this mean that what we learn in a history class is never really "true"? The world is a complicated and diverse place, and not everything that happens in it can be fitted into neat pigeonholes. As humans, we have to live with uncertainty and probability. Surely, then, the changing perspectives of historical understanding are the best introduction we can have to the practical problems of everyday life.

By making a serious effort to understand the interplay of change and continuity in human affairs, we provide ourselves with an introduction to the confusing rush of events that constitutes the actual, adult world.