By Mr Shaun McCabe
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
– George Santayana
Today, history forms a huge component of human knowledge in general, alongside cultural and scientific knowledge, both of which overlap with history. Historians place a great emphasis on primary sources; people writing based on events they or their immediate friends actually experienced, rather than secondary sources, writing merely based on hearsay.
Also important are comparisons between primary sources. Without comparisons, it can be difficult to validate historical claims. Obviously, the history of an invasion will be written differently by the conquerors and the conquered.
This subject will ensure that learners:
…understand people and societies
History offers a storehouse of information about how people and societies behave. Understanding the operations of people and societies is difficult, though a number of disciplines make the attempt. An exclusive reliance on current data would needlessly handicap our efforts.
…understand change and how the society we live in came to be.
History is inescapable as a subject of serious study that follows closely on the first. The past causes the present, and so the future. Any time we try to know why something happened, we have to look for factors that took shape earlier.
…understand the importance of history in our own lives
This fundamental reason for studying history underlies more specific and quite diverse uses of history in our own lives. History well told is beautiful. Many of the historians who most appeal to the general reading public, know the importance of dramatic and skilful writing, as well as of accuracy. History as art and entertainment serves a real purpose, on aesthetic grounds but also on the level of human understanding.
…see how history contributes to moral understanding
History also provides a terrain for moral contemplation. Studying the stories of individuals and situations in the past allows a student of history to test his or her own moral sense, to hone it against some of the real complexities individuals have faced in difficult settings.
…understand how history provides identity
History also helps provide identity, and this is unquestionably one of the reasons all modern nations encourage its teaching in some form. Historical data include evidence about how families, groups, institutions and whole countries were formed and about how they have evolved while retaining cohesion.
Some topics covered include:
- French Revolution
- American War of Independence
- USA,1919 – 1939: “Boom and Bust”
- Russia, 1917 – 1941
- The Cold War: Europe, Vietnam and Middle East
- China: Third Force in the Cold War
- The Crises of the 1980s in South Africa
- Collapse of the USSR
- Civil Society and Civil Protest: USA and South Africa
What is the purpose of studying History?
History should be studied because it is essential to individuals and to society, and because it harbours beauty. There are many ways to discuss the real functions of the subject, as there are many different historical talents and many different paths to historical meaning.
By engaging in History, a learner will be able to:
The study of history builds experience in dealing with and assessing various kinds of evidence—the sorts of evidence historians use in shaping the most accurate pictures of the past that they can. This skill can also be applied to information encountered in everyday life.
…assess conflicting interpretations.
Learning history means gaining some skill in sorting through diverse, often conflicting interpretations. This is one area in which the full benefits of historical study sometimes clash with the narrower uses of the past to construct identity.
…experience in assessing past examples of change.
Experience in assessing past examples of change is vital to understanding change in society today – it’s an essential skill in what we are regularly told is our “ever-changing world.” Analysis of change means developing some capacity for determining the magnitude and significance of change, for some changes are more fundamental than others.
Historical study, in sum, is crucial to the promotion of that elusive creature, the well-informed citizen. It provides basic factual information about the background of our political institutions and about the values and problems that affect our social well-being. It also contributes to our capacity to use evidence, assess interpretations, and analyse change and continuities.
History is useful in the world of work!
History is useful for work. Its study helps create good businesspeople, professionals, and political leaders, but most people who study history use their training for broader professional purposes.
Employers often deliberately seek students with the kinds of capacities historical study promotes. The reasons are not hard to identify. Students of history acquire, by studying different phases of the past and different societies in the past, a broad perspective that gives them the range and flexibility required in many work situations. They develop research skills, the ability to find and evaluate sources of information, and the means to identify and evaluate diverse interpretations.
Work in history also improves basic writing and speaking skills and is directly relevant to many of the analytical requirements in the public and private sectors, where the capacities to identify, assess, and explain trends is essential.
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