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Why Do We Study History?

Authored By: 
Ian Rusten, History Teacher

“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” Marcus Garvey

Why history? Is the past actually relevant to today? Why do we spend so much time in middle and high school studying history? Some students see history as a boring compilation of dates, events, and dead people, even a "brain drain" on their already taxed growing minds. Why should we need to understand what happened in the past? Isn’t the future what is really important?

History is much more than a series of dates, key events, or important people. It is a poignant narrative of the journey of humanity.  Teaching history in my small classes at The Beekman School, I try to connect to the human aspect of the subject.  My job is to bring our shared past alive and attempt to communicate the triumphs and tragedies of the human experience. It’s the small stories that matter. Winston Churchill may have been correct that “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it,” for most frequently history is written by the victor. This is all the more reason for us to study history, however, albeit with a critical lens and through multiple perspectives. In fact, with some digging and close reading of primary source documents from different eras, we can find the stories of lesser-known individuals which conventional history has often overlooked.  In recent months, The New York Times has been publishing a series of obituaries of figures in history, key figures such as Ida B. Wells and Emily Warren Roebling, who were overlooked and who never received a prominent acknowledgment of their role in shaping our history.

You still might ask: Why do these stories matter? What can we learn from past? On the surface, one might dismiss the importance of learning about Harriott Daley, the capital’s first telephone operator, but through her story, we can learn a lesson about the inner workings of the American government or the history of industry and the birth of the telephone.  The stories from the past can (and, in fact, should) inform our thinking about the future. While the saying “Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it” may be a cliché, there is some truth in it.  Unless we learn lessons from those that came before us then we cannot arrive at a better future. So now it is your turn to use your broadening knowledge of the past to set down your roots and shape the narrative of the future.