Is history really important?
We think so. Over the centuries, people have regarded history very highly. Clio, its “patron saint,” was one of the Muses of ancient Greece. Cicero said of it, “History
is the witness of time, the lamp of truth, the embodied soul of memory, the instructress
of life, and the messenger of antiquity.” Henry Brathwaite, writing a handbook of
conduct for the Elizabethan gentleman, called history “the sweetest recreation of
Unfortunately, history is not so highly regarded today. Given a chance to fill in
the blank in the sentence “I hate ____________,” many would say “history!” For them,
history is a jumble of boring dates and unconnected facts (“just one thing after another”)
or completely irrelevant to their plans for a career. (To be honest, history has probably
had more detractors than fans — read the comments, good and bad, that have been made about history over the years.)
We hope to convince you that history has an important place in your education.
What good will taking history courses do me?
For undergraduate students who do not major in history, history courses may be used
to fulfill many of the general education requirements of the university. History courses are also an important component of such interdisciplinary programs
as African and African American Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies.
If you become a serious student of history you will learn how to do research (the
literal meaning of the Greek word historia) by analyzing primary documents, accepting no one’s authority as gospel truth but
puzzling out meanings and connections for yourself. You will be forced by your peers
to think logically and to present your conclusions clearly, precisely, gracefully,
History courses are good preparation for many careers (read about that preparation).
But the chief value of studying history is not in preparation for a job. It is preparation
for living in a global society that is becoming more complex all the time. We today
come in contact with peoples, cultures, and religions that differ greatly from our
own, and we need to develop an understanding of them. History is far from being a
laboratory science that can make extremely accurate predictions based on previous
experiments, but it is a kind of database from which to draw. Situations arise in
which the only way to know how to respond intelligently is through knowledge of similar
institutions in the past. History does matter.
You can find very detailed answers to this question of “Why study history?” in essays
by Peter Stearns and William McNeill.
What exactly do historians do?
History is an essential part of a liberal-arts education, perhaps the broadest in
scope of any of the humanities. Historians seem to have adopted Sir Francis Bacon’s
dictum “I have taken all knowledge as my province” as their own. If humans have done
it, historians will study it.
There are all sorts of historians. Some are story-tellers in the grand tradition of
those who can hold an audience or readers spellbound by the telling. Some are primarily
researchers and publishers of information for fellow historians. Some tell their “stories”
through managing museums and curating exhibitions. Some do not hesitate to incorporate
methodologies from less literary disciplines and tell their stories through statistical
analysis or geographic information systems. Some are eclectic in approach and use
whatever methodology best serves the subject.
What do historians work with?
Most historians work with some form of written record or information derived from
such a record, but some historians work with materials that were not “written” by
human hands, such as tree rings, sedimentary layers, or pieces of pottery
You will find a fuller explanation in our separate discussion of these records.
What occupations do history courses prepare me for?
The stereotype is that history students become history teachers. Many students of
history do go on to become teachers at every level of education, but the study of
history is good preparation for careers far removed from teaching: law, government
service, diplomacy, museums and historical preservation, librarianship, religious
ministry, writing, business, journalism, and university administration (the president
of the nation’s oldest university — Harvard — is a historian — Drew Gilpin Faust).
You can find more detailed answers to this question in essays by Phi Alpha Theta and the American Historical Association.
History teachers sometimes mention Clio. What does she have to do with history?
Clio, one of the nine muses revered by ancient Greeks, was the muse of history and
therefore a kind of “patron saint” of history for modern historians. You will sometimes
see her name in other words related to history; for example, the use of statistical
considerations in history is called “cliometrics.”
You will find a fuller explanation in our separate discussion of Clio.