Why Study History Peter Stearns

Why Study History?
Peter N. Stearns
George Mason
People live in the present. They plan for and worry about the future. History, however, is the study of the past. Given all
the demands that press in from living in the present and anticipating what is yet to come, why bother with what has
been? Given all the desirable and available branches of knowledge, why insist-as most American educational programs
do-on a good bit of history? And why urge many students to study even more history than they are required to?
Any subject of study needs justification: its advocates must explain why it is worth attention. Most widely accepted
subjects-and history is certainly one of them-attract some people who simply like the information and modes of thought
involved. But audiences less spontaneously drawn to the subject and more doubtful about why to bother need to know
what the purpose is.
Historians do not perform heart transplants, improve highway design, or arrest criminals. In a society that quite correctly
expects education to serve useful purposes, the functions of history can seem more difficult to define than those of
engineering or medicine. History is in fact very useful, actually indispensable, but the products of historical study are less
tangible, sometimes less immediate, than those that stem from some other disciplines.
In the past history has been justified for reasons we would no longer accept. For instance, one of the reasons history
holds its place in current education is because earlier leaders believed that a knowledge of certain historical facts helped
distinguish the educated from the uneducated; the person who could reel off the date of the Norman conquest of
England (1066) or the name of the person who came up with the theory of evolution at about the same time that
Darwin did (Wallace) was deemed superior-a better candidate for law school or even a business promotion. Knowledge
of historical facts has been used as a screening device in...