Why Study History?

John FeaOur textbook orders for next fall are due this Friday, and I’m absolutely not prepared. But I can take some solace in the fact that I already know exactly what text I’ll be using in Spring 2014 for our department’s capstone Senior Seminar: Why Study History? Reflecting on the Importance of the Past, by friend-of-this-blog John Fea.

In 2012’s Senior Seminar I had students take turns presenting chapters from Confessing History, a collection of essays on Christianity and history that John co-edited, but after having taken a year off from sending him royalties, I’m even more excited about teaching through Why Study History? in 2014, since John says that book is aimed squarely at “Christian college students who are studying history” rather than the graduate students and older scholars for whom Confessing History was pitched. Here’s more of his description of the project:

I have deliberately made an effort to blend the theoretical and the practical in jargon-free, easily accessible prose.  So much of the scholarly work in historiography tends to be dense and impregnable to the undergraduate mind. While I have not avoided complex ideas at the intersection of history and theory, I have largely downplayed them in favor of an approach that students will find useful.  For example, I have devoted considerable attention to the way history can contribute to a healthy democratic society, how history can deepen our spiritual lives, and even how the study of history prepares one for a variety of careers and vocations in an ever-growing and expanding marketplace.

John reports that the book is due in September, but it’s available from Amazon for pre-order already (at a 30% discount).

AHA logoIn the meantime, last week in Senior Seminar we happened to discuss Peter Stearns’ 1998 essay, also titled “Why Study History?” (It’s available from the American Historical Association.) While we explored the idea that the study of the past might be its own reward (I’ll soon be continuing my series on the vocation of a Christian historian by describing truth-telling as a source of gladness) and Stearns allowed for the sheer “beauty” of history, he found ample utility in such studies.

Most fundamentally, history “offers the only extensive evidential base for the contemplation and analysis of how societies function, and people need to have some sense of how societies function simply to run their own lives” and “Only through studying history can we grasp how things change; only through history can we begin to comprehend the factors that cause change; and only through history can we understand what elements of an institution or a society persist despite change.” But he thought that history promises other tangible benefits: individual and group identity, moral understanding, marketable skills, and even good citizenship, among others.

I asked my students to take some time last week to continue to think about Stearns’ essay and then write a 500-word reflection on what they found to be the most compelling answer to his — and John’s — question. We’ll be sharing a few of their responses this week on our department blog, starting this morning with two students struck by the power of history as a form of storytelling. (Update: the second post in that series covers the relationship between history and identity.)

What do you think: Why is it important to study history?


3 thoughts on “Why Study History?

  1. Thanks for passing this along. I have been using Rowan Williams’ Why Study the Past as the methodology book for my seminary survey course (Apostolic to Pre-Reformation). It’s a good book that shows both method and a quick chronological overview. Looking forward to this one!

  2. Prior to my retirement I often told my younger co-workers that my history classes (I was a history minor at Bethel) were the best preparation for my job. This might seem a bit odd as I was an IT manager. History classes were absolutely invaluable for helping to understand people’s behavior. Most people who have a technology occupation are ill-prepared to work with others. History classes give you an insight to motivations and responses that people exhibit. Working in a business setting is at least 50% dealing with others which seems to be the most challenging skill for the typical IT type personality.

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