Why Study History?: Identity

This afternoon we’ll continue our series featuring students in our capstone course, HIS499 Senior Seminar, as they responded to the question asked by world historian Peter Stearns in his 1998 essay, “Why Study History? In today’s post History/Philosophy major Anders Larson and History/Social Studies Education majors Bjorn Olson and Joe Held take up Stearns’ argument that historical study “helps provide identity… Merely defining the group in the present pales against the possibility of forming an identity based on a rich past.”

“When we look into our own lives, our identity itself seems to be made up of past experiences, past ideals, etc.  We remember interactions.  We remember what we thought at a certain period and how that has changed over time.  Narratives form who we are as human beings, and narratives are essentially the historical biography of a person or people group.  To give a nod to Peter Stearns, history helps to form and shape this identity in ways that cannot be overlooked.  If one were to merely look to the present state of affairs, they would miss out on an incredible amount of context and fail to realize that context is everything when it comes to understanding someone else’s or even one’s own identity.”

Anders Larson (’13)

“Everyone has a past; without knowing where a person came from it is impossible for the individual to understand key fundamentals in their life. Why do they react certain ways, why they do things the way they do them or even why they are who they are? This is greatly determined by their history…. Knowledge of an identity does not only pertain to individuals but to nations as well. Knowing the history of your nation provides you with a sense of worth and accomplishment based on your nation’s achievements. It also allows for a commonality that brings seemingly different people to a common table for which they both work to fill.”

Bjorn Olson (’13)

“I often wonder why we teach [and study] history in schools. What is the importance of it? I think that Stearns brings up an excellent point. History is the only way for Americans to have a shared identity. We do not come from the same lands, we do not speak the same languages, and we certainly do not have the same cultural roots. Teaching history (along with studying history) helps us better understand who we are and where we are going as mankind. It helps to give us foundations in which to build from. Perhaps it is because I am such a future thinker, but I really believe that studying history must have a purpose of bettering the future. If that is not the case, is it a worthy subject to study? Is its only value to be a hobby for the intelligentsia? I refuse to believe that. History is a wondrous tool that we can use to build our future. No one says that using the tools cannot be fun.”

Joe Held (’13)

<<Read the first post in this series

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