Why History Matters

“History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.” - James Baldwin (1965).

Indeed, as Baldwin noticed, history provides us important frames of reference, a sense of identity, and a clearer idea of our aspirations. These facts alone explain why history matters, but history can be used, as it often is, in a variety of ways and for several purposes. Politicians, for example, have traditionally used history to justify their power or to challenge that of their opponents. Winston Churchill, perhaps, provides the most glaring example of this practice when he famously announced that “history will be kind to me as I intend to write it.” 

Others have noticed the power of history to anticipate problems similar to those our forebears experienced in the past. Who is not familiar with George Santayana’s often quoted statement: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it”? Never mind calling attention to important historical phenomena and events that still bear influence on modern societies, including our own, such as industrialization, colonization, globalization, etc. Some of these have allowed us to accomplish remarkable feats, like the technological revolution that enabled us to send humans to space, while others have perpetuated or exacerbated old grievances, such as poverty, gender inequality, and racial discrimination. As William Faulkner once observed: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

In a world that never stops changing, and where people have busy schedules, it is only too common to overlook the importance of history or to reduce it to a mere school requirement or skill set for the job market. Our understanding of past events and phenomena inform policies, legislation, cures, attitudes, and many other aspects of life. History therefore is of paramount importance. No wonder history departments are located at the center of every major university across the country. If you would like to know more why history matters, please consult the Why Study History? page of the American Historical Association, the History Relevance Campaign hosted by the Kentucky Historical Society, and the Why Historical Thinking Matters initiative of the George Mason University Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media and Stanford University School of Education. Below is a list of suggestions for further reading and reflection. 

Suggestions for Further Reading

  • Bloch, Marc. The Historian’s Craft. Translated by Peter Putnam. New York: Vintage Books, 1953.
  • Carr, Edward Hallett. What Is History? New York: Vintage Books, 1961.
  • Fea, John. Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013.
  • Lerner, Gerda. Why History Matters: Life and Thought. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
  • Tosh, John. Why History Matters. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.
  • Wood, Gordon S. The Purpose of the Past: Reflections on the Uses of History. New York: Penguin, 2008.