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Why Study History?

Many students consider it one of the most boring subjects out there, others one of the most important. Toby, one of Spires’ online a-level history tutors, and graduate of Oxford University, shares his thoughts on the importance of History as a subject. 

Keeping An Objective Perspective In History

It is not surprising to see that history is mentioned in a school timetable or syllabus – perhaps with some categorization, such as “ancient Egyptian”, “ancient Greek”, “contemporary”, or “twentieth century”. History has always been part of the curriculum, and it always will be. Nearly every humanities subject is centered around it, and it can even be expanded to include math, science and technology – whose current success is completely the result of progress over the last thousands of years!

We often need to take a step back when studying with our history tutor, to look at ourselves rather than the facts presented on paper. In addition to being a series of dates and events, history can also be a study in how we perceive ourselves and how we handle ourselves when we have to face the uncomfortable parts of history-especially those affecting us directly.

Dissociating yourself from Ancient History might be easy. Because the world back then was so different from our lives now, trying to connect it to ours seems impossible. And how about when we move into more current history? As we come to recognize nationalities, religions, and countries among ourselves — names with which we identify — it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain a healthy academic disassociation. When trying to analyze historical events objectively, we might be more susceptible to emotions.

The Holocaust and World War II are classic examples of this. Clearly, both are well over, but both also hit closer to home than Ancient Rome may have. Students may have grandfathers who served in the British army during World War II or families who suffered in the Holocaust, making it difficult to truly study these events objectively. Alternatively, someone from a German heritage might find the subject equally challenging. The issue in some cases is not that our own histories are mixed up in the event; it can also be that certain names and identities begin to sound familiar, provoking a subjective and emotional response.

History can both be thought of as an art and as a science because it is a process that requires us to be able to objectively asses and evaluate the facts that are in front of us, and such a subjective approach is obviously harmful to that process. Many people have a hard time reaching an objective level of reasoning – it is in our nature to defend what we identify with, and having an objective point of view is truly difficult. The question “why” is often helpful: that is, what led to this? Why did it happen the way it did?

Another way of looking at this issue is from the standpoint of what I consider to be one of the main goals of history education: building empathy. It is so easy to lose sight of the fact that every decision over the centuries was made by a human being, like all of us, lost in the tabloid headlines of history. Sometimes the most helpful thing of all is to think back – knowing the information and facts that you have in your hands – and wonder what you would have done yourself? Not every travesty in human history can be solved through empathy – but many of the difficulties in facing our own identities in a difficult past can be.

History Is Not Just A Series Of Facts Or Events That Happened In The Past

Consider this tall tale…

Sam owns a shop which he lives in with his Labrador, Pup. After a spate of thefts, he thinks he has found the culprit, James, who Sam believes he caught stealing a packet of crisps last week. He says James has a history of stealing things from his shop, based on when James was very little and took chocolate mice from the penny sweet section. As well as this, Sam says James and his mates ‘loiter’ outside Sam’s shop after school, around the same time as when things are taken. James denies it, but nobody can find the crisps and everybody presumes them eaten. It is reported to the school that James has stolen from Sam’s shop and James is grounded by his parents.

However, Toby (ahem), James’ history tutor, digs further. Why does everybody believe Sam’s story? Events need closer examination, but on doing so Mr Lloyd finds Sam’s evidence to be suspect. For instance:

– All the kids gather outside of Sam’s shop after school, not just James, and ‘loiter’ is a very provocative word, suggesting intent or misbehaviour, when ‘hang out’ or ‘socialise’ may also be appropriate.

– Few of these teenagers knew the consequences of their actions when they took a chocolate mouse at the age of 5 – they learn; their parents tell them to not do so again. One instance is not a trend.

– The fact that nobody could find the crisps on James could prove that he did not take them as much as it proves that he has eaten them, and there is absolutely no evidence linking James to any of the other thefts.

– Sam says he saw James take the crisps. But what exactly happened? The crisps, Sam says, were on the counter before James came in to buy a drink; Sam turned his back to put money into the till, turned back and they were gone. But, as Mr Lloyd points out, Sam did not see James take the crisps.

What can settle this? The CCTV outside the shop. The local police are happy to help. After sifting through hours of footage, they find James going into the shop and coming out – without any crisps. At the same time, Sam’s dog Pup wanders into the shop, and soon wanders out, a packet of crisps in her mouth. She disappears from view. Pup has been taking things from the store as chew toys. All is settled peacefully.

History is more than a collection of facts and events from the past. History is about asking questions, not making statements. Why did something happen? Political leaders, ordinary citizens, even historians, how do they present what happened? For what reason? Do they have evidence to support their view? What evidence do we have? And what does the evidence really point to? 

History is constant, ongoing detective work, and all the more alive for it!