History Department

Why Study History?

1689 world map

The purpose of historical inquiry is not simply to present facts but to search for an interpretation of the past. Historians attempt to find patterns and establish meaning through the rigorous study of documents and artifacts left by people of other times and other places.

The study of history is vital to a liberal arts education. History is unique among the liberal arts in its emphasis on historical perspective and context. Historians insist that the past must be understood on its own terms; any historical phenomenon -- an event, an idea, a law, or a dogma for example -- must first be understood in its context, as part of a web of interrelated institutions, values, and beliefs that define a particular culture and era. Among the liberal arts, history is the discipline most concerned with understanding change. Historians seek not only to explain historical causality--how and why change occurs within societies and cultures. They also try to account for the endurance of tradition, understand the complex interplay between continuity and change, and explain the origins, evolution, and decline of institutions and ideas. History is also distinguished by its singularly broad scope. Virtually every subject has a history and can be analyzed and interpreted in historical perspective and context; the scope of historical inquiry is bound only by the quantity and quality of surviving documents and artifacts.

It is commonly acknowledged that an understanding of the past is fundamental to an understanding of the present. The analysis and interpretation of history provide an essential context for evaluating contemporary institutions, politics, and cultures. Understanding the present configuration of society is not the only reason to study the past; history also provides unique insight into human nature and human civilization. By demanding that we see the world through the eyes of others, that we develop a sense of context and coherence while recognizing complexity and ambiguity, and that we confront the record not only of human achievement but also of human failure, cruelty, and barbarity, the study of history provides us with a richly-textured, substantive framework for understanding the human condition and grappling with moral questions and problems. History is essential to the traditional objectives of the liberal arts, the quest for wisdom and virtue.

There is another reason to study history: it's fun. History combines the excitement of exploration and discovery with the sense of reward born of successfully confronting and making sense of complex and challenging problems.
--Frank Luttmer (1996)

Other Essays on the Study of History

Lord Acton, Inaugural Lecture on the Study of History (1906)
Robert Blackey et al., Why Become a Historian? (2007)
Frank Luttmer, The Devil, History, and Studia Humanitatis (1999)
Gerald W. Schlabach, A Sense of History: Some Components (1996)
Peter N. Stearns, Why Study History? (1998)

History as Career Preparation

The study of history can also be useful preparation for paid labor. For essays on how to connect the study of history to a satisfying career, see "What Can I Do with a History Major?"

The image above is part of a 1689 map of the world drawn by Gerard van Schagen.  It has been featured in the history department's website since 1998.
Last Updated: Sept. 30, 2017