Why Study History?: Storytelling

Last week in HIS499 Senior Seminar, students reflected on why it’s important to study history. Throughout this last week of February, we’ll share some of their answers, grouped around some of the themes emphasized by world historian Peter Stearns in his essay, “Why Study History?First up, History/Theology major Hilary Ritchie and History/Social Studies Education major Annie Berglund emphasize the power of storytelling.

“We learn and are shaped by the stories we tell and hear. History is the story of the past as we see it now. While the word ‘story’ can imply fiction, it is not meant as such in this context. The story of history is one that is concerned with real facts and real events that happened at some point in the past. It shows that while the events were real, they will always be bound up in interpretation now, which is why we do historiography. Therefore, history as a noun is not necessarily the event itself. It cannot be, because it is happening only inasmuch as we are relaying the event at the present time. History is a present retelling of a past event. This retelling is valuable because we learn about that which has happened before and hope to learn from it in some way. We must not think that just because we can never completely reconstruct what exactly happened in the past that we should give up on history. It is just the reality of being time-bound creatures. We can to some extent reconstruct the past, and the more study we attempt, the more successful we will be.”

Hilary Ritchie (’13)

“I think much of what history has to teach us comes from its ability to imaginatively relay a story. In my P course [the capstone category in Bethel’s general education curriculum], GES412P The Plot Thickens, we have recently discussed the components of a story and the reason why people are influenced by and emotionally connected to the tales of others. While historians use factual information, like dates and happenings of events, effectively telling stories to deliver these facts gives applicable meaning to the listener. While I worried that story telling was too biased to be the purpose of historians, much of why people tell stories is to uncover the truth of a situation and to actively engage with characters. Thinking about it in a faith-based perspective, the Bible continually uses stories of individuals to explain a truth about God, humanity, creation – the list goes on and on! Furthermore, learning from historical characters is a part of imaginative listening. If I hear a historian tell me about the life of Abraham Lincoln, for example, I can put myself into his shoes, though a century and a half ago, and decide whether I would act in the same way he did. Revealing the truth about the past encourages my own revelation about my character.”

Annie Berglund (’13)

Read the next entry in this series>>

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2 thoughts on “Why Study History?: Storytelling”

  1. One book that I am now reading does a great job of blending story and historical scholarship. In “Emperor of China: Self-Portrait of Kang-hsi” Jonathan Spence takes letters, notes and other smaller textual fragments written by the Qing dynasty emperor and weaves them together, in translation, to form a picture of the life and times of that great emperor. I am thoroughly enjoying the book and am also happy to say that I enjoyed the ruminations of HIlary and Annie. History senior sem was one of the most enjoyable classes in my Bethel experience!

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