Why Study History?

Several authors have covered the topic of “Why Study History?” Here is an overview of the article by William McNeill from 1985.

The subject of history is not limited to a topic taught in schools. People fail to realize that the subject of history is taught from an early age and isn’t limited to reading books of the past. History is a way of life, it creates order amongst the chaos, and it creates a person’s understanding of the city, country, and world around them. McNeill feels that the acceptance of a broader view of history creates maturity of the mind and “is essential for an adult understanding of the world.” William McNeill’s levels of history, personal, national and global, provide an alternative look to the study and understanding of the subject of history.

Young children are taught long before pre-school the generalities of their family history. Subjects, such as family origin, which encompass a spoken language, diet, daily habits and religion are in typically commonplace before a child can walk or talk. A family who speaks Spanish comes from a Spanish influenced culture, this is history. The bible can be considered one of the oldest history books and is often taught to children in the form of bedtime stories. As children begin to start kindergarten, they become aware of the other families around them and those families’ histories as well. Slowly, the history of their neighborhood and the city they live in becomes important to them, because it is a part of them. The reason the term Northerner, Southerner and Westerner exist is people take on the history around them. The “personal” level of history is rarely controversial where someone lives because like minds tend to stick together and it’s always personal, which is why many people choose to stay on this level, it’s in their comfort zone.

When students enter the later grades of high school in the United States, they are taught US History, US Government, and Economics in the hopes of beginning to bringing students to what McNeill considers Level II, or the National Level. During ninth and tenth grades “young people start to pay attention to public affairs and prepare to assume the responsibilities of citizenship.” This is where the transition from the Personal Level or Level I to Level II becomes apparent. Within this level, maturity starts to come into play. Student’s moving from Personal to National Levels must understand the concept that History is not limited to a single story or series of events. National history is a combination of everyone’s lives throughout the nation’s history. It’s black history, white history, women’s history, Native American history, history that was brought over through immigration, etc. Many of those histories aren’t pretty, but if it wasn’t for those histories America would not be the Nation it is today. It is the understanding that the Nation has and will continue to evolve because of these histories that occupy this level.

Level III, or Global History, begins when a person understands that “history does not lead to exact predication of future events” but it does give people a greater understanding of good and evil and how the people of the world can work together to create a better place. It is the knowledge that History is not individualized but the memories of a world full of people that can provide a guide for the future. It is the human mind’s ability to unravel the mystery that is humanity. Lastly, it is the understanding that memory is not everyone’s truth, because everyone’s story is different. History is the best chance we have to understand the future because such understanding will only come when a person can understand the past.

While historians will continuously interpret the past, it is a personal decision on how that history affects a person. History is a personal lesson that everyone must learn, and how in-depth that lesson becomes is up to the person. It can be as simple as understanding those closest to them, or as great as creating change in the world around them. History is the constant progression of interpreting shared memories and making a difference in the world.

Source: McNeill, William. “Why Study History? (1985).” AHA History and Archives. 2013. Accessed January 27, 2017. https://www.historians.org/about-aha-and-membership/aha-history-and-archives/archives/why-study-history-(1985).

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