This essay is a conversation-piece in reply to those who ask ‘Why Study History?’ Its title is self-explanatory. All people are unavoidably part of history – and need to know about their own historical context, as well as that of their society, and of the world. Such knowledge provides basic orientation for living in Time. Some sense of History – one’s own and that of one’s fellow humans – is essential for ‘rooting’ people. And why should that matter? The answer is that people who feel themselves to be rootless live rootless lives, often causing a lot of damage to themselves and others in the process. Indeed, at the most extreme end of the out-of-History spectrum, those individuals with the distressing experience of complete memory loss cannot manage on their own at all.
In detail, the essay refutes two common objections to studying history; and notes two weak arguments in favour of the subject. Finally, it returns to the strongest argument, that all humans not only live in history but themselves constitute living histories. To function effectively, they need a good sense of temporal synchro-mesh (rootedness in the here-and-now) but also diachro-mesh (rootedness in the there and then – the past into which the present is constantly morphing). The real question is therefore not Why study history? but How can it Best be Taught?
Note that this text is also available within the London University’s Institute of Historical Research’s website, Making History: the Discipline in Perspective (2008): https://archives.history.ac.uk/makinghistory/resources/articles/why_history_matters.html.
Penelope J. Corfield
Penelope J. Corfield is a historian, lecturer and education consultant. She currently serves as the President of the International Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (ISECS).
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