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Why Study History? (historians.org)
72 points by georgecmu on March 9, 2013 | hide | past | favorite | 51 comments

Half way through high school in the UK, you choose your subjects that you want to do until the end of high school and which you get your qualifications in. Being a bit weird, I chose subjects I didn't know much about so I wouldn't get bored, and chose history despite never giving it a second thought before.

And.. it's probably the one subject that really stands out from high school for me now. It wasn't so much learning about facts and figures but learning about the art of studying history, the difference between primary and secondary sources, the importance of good sources, and similar general principles that have continued to be useful to me as an adult.

I guess none of this would be surprising to anyone with a good liberal arts education, but approaching history as a math and science geek, it was a real eye opener for me as a teenager.

The art of studying history really stood out to me too. You're fortunate that you got that kind of history education in high school. In US high schools, history is very much about memorizing facts and figures and I think it probably ruins history for a lot of people. In my first year of high school, my history teacher was the football coach. He taught historical facts to us like he probably taught plays to his players, and I hated it. Other teachers weren't much better, but fortunately in my last year I had an inspiring history teacher, and that was enough to get me to try it out at university, where it was a radically different and much better experience.

To the Americans on HN who are still in college: if you hated history in high school, give it another chance because you may be pleasantly surprised.

I never appreciated history until I became a grad psych/soc researcher into tech/media and grokked method (and how most researchers don't, and if you think you do, you probably don't). In high school it was all facts and figured and then I gave up the boring "learn stories" stuff up for A-level maths physics and chemistry. I wish they taught history and humanities at school in the way they teach physics and chemistry practicals. I'd have loved it then, and clever nerds would understand its value!

I have the luck of going through one of those analytical history courses right now - but they do one thing differently: they don't even want to stoop down to prescribe on that level. Instead they give a higher-level question: "to what extent would you consider Mao's contribution to the development of modern China over-rated?" - and ask for a good argument. That inevitably that means considering counterpoints, placing them in context (and you can't go far with that if you don't understand a mite of historiography and how that in turn arises from "mainline" history), shooting them down. It's done wonders to my writing.

In fact, it's been the only opportunity in my high school program to consider and create arguments of such depth - so there's your intrinsic value.

That's really impressive. Was it your teacher, or the school that initiated this?

I do think that some students might need more handholding than you in this particular question, however... (hell, I might get lost in that) but there is room for creating experimental learning with the ability to get in flow for all skill levels. But that's what good teaching is about.

You're in luck - your guesses are just a bit too pessimistic! It's the method prescribed by my school's curriculum - they take the thing whole from a standards body. You're entirely right, though, to figure that isn't the baseline - there are plenty of "list the Xes" question that pay only lip service to considering an A line of thought versus a B line of thought.

Of course, the subject's so subjectively graded that no one's guaranteed that work is proportional to the resultant grade at the highest levels - so there's remarkably little pressure and far more experimentation done than you'd expect from a high-school programme. It's a strange arrangement, but I'm lucky to have fell into it.

History doesn't need to justify itself any more than Literature or Dance does.

But trying to turn it into something it's not -- a way of discovering new facts about the world -- is incredibly dangerous. Most educated people are aware that there are limits of reason, such as situations where the facts are so thin that the only honest answer is "I don't know". They are aware of the limits of science, where there is no practical experiment to falsify a claim and you have to fall back on tentative strategies like Popper's.

But then these people look at history, and see this giant pile of anecdotes, and all the sudden it's the Middle Ages again and we can hermenutic our way to wisdom by staring at it really hard, or as this website puts it, "having repeated experience in historical inquiry". But I don't get it; if there's a heuristic for knowing when trying to solve problems with history is worse than nothing, I've missed it. Until I figure that out I'm going to have to stick with "always", and this webpage doesn't give me a lot of reason to think otherwise.

How can history possibly be harmful? The OP makes the case repeatedly:

"History Helps Us Understand People and Societies", but it doesn't give us any basis for knowing if that understanding is based on broad stereotype or outright lies, or worse yet, someone else's interpretation of history: a game of telephone stretching back to the dawn of communication. Merely becoming an experienced historian so that you're less likely to fall into that trap isn't sufficient; you're starting at worse than zero so you have to assume you've just gotten less terrible until you have some solid reason to think otherwise.

"History Provides Identity." Identity, of course, being an organized system for dehumanizing other people. That history, true or false, is an incredibly powerful tool for doing this does it no favors as something you should voluntarily poison your mind with.

"Studying History Is Essential for Good Citizenship." Here we're getting back around to a better excuse for studying history: If it really is unavoidable, and history is somehow part of us that we cannot destroy, then maybe we need to fill that hunger with a nice pablum like the US civics curriculum. It's a harm minimization strategy, like giving opiate addicts a supply of quality morphine so they don't stick whatever they find on the street into their veins.

Your comment is based on a very flawed understanding of what the study of history is.

First, while it is true that historical evidence is imperfect, it is extremely uncharitable and frankly unjustifiable to call it a "pile of anecdotes," "based on broad stereotype or outright lies," and "worse than zero." Historical research is centered around primary sources, and while no primary source gives you a complete picture or has a single interpretation, they are not mere anecdotes or outright lies.

Second, no serious historian thinks you should use specific events from the past to draw grand conclusions about the present. The past loses potency when taken out of context. But the study of history still has applications to the present. When you have worked with incomplete evidence and conflicting interpretations of the past, you start to realize that your view of the present is similarly imperfect. Any one person only has an incomplete picture of what is happening in the world, but despite this, I encounter many people who think events or trends have only one cause and they know exactly what it is. As another example, people often expect the future to work out a particular way, and fail to appreciate the effects of other, unseen forces. It is easier to realize these fallacies when you have studied history, where information is more obviously imperfect and you have the benefit of being detached.

You are right about the limits of reason, but you are wrong to say that history is harmful: to the contrary it is one of the best ways for us to realize those limits.

I'm basing my comment on the implied definition of history being presented in the article. I think it's trying to move history from the category of study for the sake of study, for "people who simply like the information and modes of thought involved", into that category of things that are essential for everyone to study. I think that's unfair to the other liberal arts and an exaggeration of the universal utility of historical study.

You're taking "based on broad stereotype or outright lies," and "worse than zero." out of context, but I'll defend "pile of anecdotes", because that's what even good primary sources are: a non-representative data point of something that happened in an uncontrolled environment.

I appreciate what you're saying about the study of history being able to open your mind to the complexity of the world, but that's such a different goal for history than the article presents that I think you're defending a different thing entirely, and not the idea I'm attacking.

OK. Now go and take this opinion to its logical extreme. Any record, any meta-commentary, any summary, must become suspect, whether it was made 500 years ago or 5 minutes ago.

Oops, now you can no longer communicate with people - no "catching up" on events or "living vicariously" through them - all anecdotes. Can't be doing that. You cannot study a timeline or a log of events and believe it. You can't believe a story unless it happened in front of your eyes, but if you try to remember it, now you are recalling a history, so it can't be trusted.

Clearly, not a sensible opinion. So then what are you really saying? Are you saying that you don't care about _political_ history? In that case, you have plenty of people agreeing with you.

Political histories are popular in school curricula, but are only representative of a tiny, tiny fraction of all history. We also have a history of mathematics and sciences, social and culture histories, histories of the planet, the stars, and all known life forms. All "postmortem" style articles are historical documents. In each of these fields, the specific techniques differ and some are more or less falsifiable than others, but we are ultimately limited by physics, which imposes the final limit on how much of the real world can be "proven."

Its true that getting to the truth is very hard when you're studying historical events. The people who record such events are likely to have certain biases, some of which may seem barbaric in our present time. But that does not mean that you throw out the baby with the bathwater.

I would argue that the biggest achievement of the human race has been our ability to archive our past and learn from it, allowing one generation to build upon the achievements of the previous one. This is how scientific progress takes place; unfortunately, it is also how myths and superstitions are propagated, such as religion.

Anyways, addressing your specific points: history provides guidance to those facing similar situations. For example, James Brooke, the White Rajah of Sarawak, was influenced by the exploits of Robert Clive, of whom he had read in great detail. On the other hand, Hitler failed to learn from Napoleon's mistake and made the same mistake of trying to invade Russia.

Be it Military, Science, Economics or even law, history provides a rich database of prior experience from which we can draw lessons from and continue to make progress

But then these people look at history, and see this giant pile of anecdotes, and all the sudden it's the Middle Ages again and we can hermenutic our way to wisdom by staring at it really hard

My whole life is a pile of anecdotes! And yet I've used my experiences to build a functional mental model of the world. I can use history in the same way.

You argue that anecdotal data should be flatly ignored when making decisions. If that were true then newborn children would be the best reasoners on the planet. Your argument cannot hold in general.

'Most educated people are aware that there are limits of reason, such as situations where the facts are so thin that the only honest answer is "I don't know".'

Some of the value of historical study is that you get to discover just how ideas like "limits of reason" and "I don't know" as a valid answer come about in the first place, out of processes that have nothing to do with progress and advancement. This is the kind of historical relativism people start getting afraid of ("what do you mean there's no objective standards for most anything!"), but it's a result of historical inquiry that actually commends us to actually think about what we say, do, and take to be true. We can have conversations with one another only when we drop assumptions. History is key to all ethical conversation.

Humanities professors (of which I am one) now take it for granted that their days are numbered -- that subjects like History, Philosophy, English literature, and Classics won't survive another fifty years as major parts of the university curriculum.

This post amply explains why that is happening.

Are you saying that history is in all cases harmful for practical purposes? Or are you saying that it is harmful for most people, who are dilettantes who read a few pop-histories and think they understand the time period? If you are arguing the latter, I agree. True ignorance is preferable to false knowledge.

But for the serious student, history can be very informative and useful. True knowledge takes a lot of time. One must find good sources, learn the context of various writers and how their biases might color their writings, learn how to separate the creditable writers from the propagandists, and read both primary sources and the finest secondary sources, And finally you must be willing to recognize the limits of knowledge, at some points you must admit that you do not know what happened and never will. But if that is all done, I think history can be extremely valuable for understanding the present and making good decisions going forward.

I'm saying it's harmful for most people who are dilettantes. I'm also attempting to say that it's somewhat unique in this, at least among the core knowledge subjects that most people are expected to know. The only other subjects with such a high "what you know that isn't true will hurt you" level are things like medicine, law, and chemistry, but in those everyone is made aware of the danger and there are entire industries worth of safety precautions because of it.

Convince someone that they have a sufficient level of historical aptitude to apply it and they can obtain and use falsehoods at a stunning rate.

I think this is a much more reasonable argument than what your original comment seems to say, and I agree with you that an insufficient knowledge of history is harmful, and this should really be made clear in high school-level history. But isn't this true somewhat of most subjects? Consider, for example, the deplorable state of software security, or the harm caused by people who misunderstand probability. (One caveat: no subject can be compared in this regard to law and medicine, where other people need to be able to trust practitioners with their lives.)

Also, why should this mean the historical society shouldn't encourage more people to study history? When I studied history I felt that I was imbued with the importance of approaching history carefully.

I disagree with the arguments as well - it doesn't write off history, though, just a narrow brand of prescriptive history: the value has rarely been in the content (like it is for nearly every other sufficiently abstract subject), it's been in the doing: considering sources, reacting to lines of argument made throughout history in their own contexts, knitting overarching themes together to come to a single, tortured conclusion; inevitably in some journal that's been locked up on JSTOR. It lends itself to the practice of arguing far better than any of the rest of the humanities does by asking you consider all the moving parts explicitly.

So I suppose there's a parallel - it's got as much value as sufficiently high-level mathematics.

You can compare lots of historical societies, or lots of historical companies, or whatever. Why shouldn't that provide valid data - more than anecdotes, because you can have a large data sample?

Also, even an anecdote can often prove something, namely the possibility of one thing. If you find one society or company that functioned in a certain way, it is a valueable data point.

You think we can discover nothing about the past? You think falsifying is not possible?

What weird believes.

Of course all of that is possible. It’s not easy, it‘s not perfect, obviously. But it‘s possible.

Growing up, I've always had a passion for history. This was inspired by games such as Caesar, Civilization, Age of Empires, Dynasty Warriors, and Pirates. This led me to educate myself on military and geopolitical history. While this makes for interesting conversation, and understanding of foreign policy, and some insights into the nature of leadership and group loyalty, it has become increasingly obvious that it is less useful for understanding humans and organizations and their day-to-day conflicts and pathologies. It is far too high-level and besides, most interactions do not happen under the stresses of anarchy found on the campaign field or international stage. Can anyone recommend any histories that they have found that go into detail about the history of more mundane sorts of events we are likely to find in our lives?

I'll start: Therac-25: A history of a deadly medical device design error and the organizational failure that accompanied it http://sunnyday.mit.edu/papers/therac.pdf

There are entire sub-disciplines within history devoted to this sort of stuff. Social history. Micro-history.

You could try The World We Have Lost. Or The Cheese and the Worms. Among others. Really, the options are almost infinite.

Outre Mer by Paul Bourget http://books.google.com/books?id=5lQTAAAAYAAJ

It is the account of a French man traveling around the United States in the 1890's It's not about organizations so much, but is a wonderful book about the general life of the times. It is the closest thing I have found to a time machine that let's you experience turn of the century America.

Democracy and the Party System in the United States: A study in extra constitutional government (1910) by Moisei Ostrogorski http://books.google.com/books?id=HmkPAAAAYAAJ&dq=democra... This is a very colorful political history of the United States. A lot of information about how the democratic institutions worked in practiced and evolved away from their formal and intended structures. Definitely a great antidote to the traditional civics class view of American democracy.

Question: how different is it from today?

And that day came. It was boring to read books on design, crime fiction and I bought a history book. It was about the life of Julius Caesar, I knew who he was and I knew what he had done, but I wanted to read it and refresh my memory.

From that day, I started buying more and more books of history. Extending the story from 44BC in all directions. After that day (11 years ago) I can say that my life changed a lot.

Now things are different. If you're at a party or at someone's home with friends and history appears as a topic of conversation, everyone says something but rarely agrees with the story itself. It is normal to hear more nonsenses than good facts or stories, and this is how you begin to tell the history for the rest so they understand it, and they realize that you tell in a much more attractive way than a school teacher. Everyone looks at you so mesmerized that once you finish, never, ever, you regret having learned about the story itself.

Good points in good analytic terms, yet to persuade people I'd try to show them an example, to make it real. For example, Here's a brilliant (data-driven!) example of why Sociology is also worth your time: http://www.psmag.com/magazines/pacific-standard-cover-story/...

I wish people would realise that data does come in more forms than just numbers. Numbers are useful, but the social and human sciences have much to teach even when their data is less statistically amenable. Some people are afraid of anything that doesn't have stats in it, and that is their loss!

It's not clear to me why the value of sociology would need to be defended. A good deal of the social graph analysis that's so popular now is built directly on the methods and works of sociologists and social psychologists (Stanley Milgram's small world, Zachary's karate club, etc.) with the big difference between then and now being availability of computational power and data sets.

It seems like a field that has a lot of relevance today, even if perhaps people practice it under different guises.

You are a thoughtful hacker, but most people don't look much outside their own arena, which they tend to think it better than the rest, for fairly obvious psychological reasons. HN probably contains a much more open minded sample than the average science/hacker community! I'm an applied sociologist, a human hacker with emphasis on method, inter alia. The number of brilliant bio / physics and maths-oriented friends I have who believe that statistics is the only meaningful measure of truth is not insignificant. Sad, but true, a narrow methodological ideology assuming the primacy of cardinal measurements and deduction over anything else. Good point, and I shall use social network analysis as another example for such people. There are numerous examples of this blindness in popular geek culture, such as xkcd positing an outdated reductionism to physics or maths, which as a numberloving teenager I also subscribed to, because it was neat and easy.

Thank you for the pushback, but you are part of an enlightened segment. It's about time I constructed a survey to ascertain the actual values and beliefs in this space among the HN community. I wonder if they let you do surveys here.

"History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme".

Know your 19th and 20th century history. It's remarkable how little gets communicated throughout a high school education.

A good grasp of recent history really changes your perspective on the world and how people get along with each other.

A very enjoyable option for history fans is http://www.reddit.com/r/askhistorians, which keeps very high standards for the authority of their responses.

I love /r/askhistorians because the questions are as fascinating as the answers. I wish I'd been exposed to such riveting discussions during my own history classes. I really enjoy the 'cross-cutting concerns' style questions that span historical periods.

During your time period of expertise, an unwed woman finds out she's pregnant. What are her options?


It's year XXXX of your specialty. A dead body is discovered in the middle of a well populated area and the overwhelming evidence suggests he was murdered. Is anyone in charge of finding the killer? What is the attitude of the public and is there an expectation of justice?


How common was casual sex throughout history?


What is an example of humour from your period?


I think these types of questions would make great introductory history classes for students, rather than the linear blocks of 'for the next 10 weeks we learn about Ancient Egypt, then we learn Ancient Greece for 10 week' that was the structure of my first history classes.

I live in Polish town of Oswiecim - where the former Nazi Auschwitz Concentration camp is located. There is a quote on the wall there, one that I will remember forever.

"The ones who forget history are bound to live through it again"

And this is exactly the reason why we should teach history at schools.

The version I know is "Those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it."

So far, I have been taking 2 history courses [1][2] on coursera.org (which offers over 300 free online courses) and I can certainly recommend both of them. Each course looks like this: about 2 hours of video lectures per week (which you can watch whenever you want), over a period of ~15 weeks. Clearly, following those history courses meant that I do not see the world with the same eyes now. For one, I feel that I am developing a (healthy) reflex to view news events in perspective within a longer period of time, instead of just considering the events in themselves (thus lacking context). Also, drawing parallels with similar events in the past provides insight and offers a wider and more informed framework for devising an appropriate action.

[1] "The Modern World: Global History since 1760" https://www.coursera.org/course/modernworld

[2] "A History of the World since 1300" https://www.coursera.org/course/wh1300

Personally I see history as a huge but imperfectly solvable analytical problem. I am writing a little known Asian regional history at the moment, and absolutely love the long journey of discovery that is has provided.

In this era of anything-at-the-search-prompt and prepackaged-newsbite immediacy, the capacity to evaluate and compound large numbers of disparate sources in to a coherent and useful narrative is more valuable than ever.

Within programming, I certainly believe that this skill is critically useful for communicating the complex, multi-faceted environment around software systems: what led to their existence, how they differ from competing solutions, how they may be configured, maintained and integrated. More than once I recall people being astounded at my statement "I love writing documentation!". One former employer, when presented with a detailed report on a new third-party system, was simply shocked at the completeness and accessibility of the material: "Did you really write that?"

Every time people ask 'What is the point of this?' I remember the Mathematician's apology : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Mathematicians_Apology. Many ideas Hardy felt were useless then, now provides the underpinning for some very useful applications in the real world.

What matters is not what has happened in the past, but the way in which our interpretation of the past shapes our present actions. Describing Thomas Jefferson as a pedaeophile or arguing that he should be judged by the standards of his time and place say nothing about the past and much about our present time.

"The past is never dead. It's not even past." Faulkner.

Lacking historical knowledge doesn't mean being doomed to repeat it. Having human desires means being doomed to repeat it. You don't see wars started for lack of history majors (we have more today than we did for most of human history).

group A: We want your [food, resources, women, whatever].

group B: Uhm, those are ours, you can't have them.

group A: Too bad, we're going to take them by force.

History is interesting, but the world has changed so much in the last hundred years, that most situations one encounters today have little relation to the past.

Humanity's base drives haven't changed, but most people like to pretend those don't apply to their ingroup, historical education or no. Simple, greed driven motivations only apply to Other People; we always ascribe more complicated and more noble motives to ourselves.

"In every age, in every place, the deeds of men remain the same."

> History should be studied because it is essential to individuals and to society, and because it harbors beauty.

And more important, we study history to avoid reliving it.

If you're serious about learning history, there's no substitute for reading primary sources:


Remember that the cliché is right: the winners write the history books. The antidote is primary documents (and humility). This doesn't mean you should ignore secondary sources. Just keep them honest by going to the originals from time to time.

..because if it's true that history repeats itself, then studying history is effectively studying the future?

(i'm sorry, i couldn't help myself)

This is somewhat far-fetched, but I'd like to see more historians/ archaeologists get into big data. As a society we are collecting the most important bits of history and putting them in digital form. One might just decipher a bit more of the Maya code by analyzing patterns in the scripts, for example.

This is already being done. A physicist I worked with used statistical methods to decipher part of the script used by the Indus Valley Civilization:



When I was younger, I used to really dislike history. I thought it was boring. I thought only the present and future were interesting. I didn't see the value in it.

I see value[1] in history now.

[1] https://twitter.com/shurcooL/status/308948806882426880

Ironically, the linked page doesn't show the tweet that was posted just a minute later, which is quite relevant. (https://twitter.com/shurcooL/status/308949225276862465)

Because the beginning of things is important to understand so you can see the growth an predict what comes next. It also helps to make an honest determination if something has lost its way and not just be resorting to hyperbole.

Why study history? Because it's fun. How fun? Begin your journey right here:


The best podcast on history: Hardcore History, by Dan Carlin. He also has a great podcast called "Common Sense".

As my history teacher would say, "to learn from our own (we as a society) past"

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