Why Study History?

This fall, I will be teaching a First Year Seminar called “Pathways to the Past.”  The purpose of this course is to introduce first year students (formerly known as freshmen) to the varied ways people learn about the past—and to show them that history is more than the mere memorization of names, dates, and places.  The course will be interdisciplinary—after all, every academic subject involves history, whether it’s obvious (such as a history class) or implicit (such as a chemistry class).  The record of what happened before—that’s a history of that experiment, and often the intent is that you achieve the results of a successful experiment—in other words, repeat history.  We will watch films; they will research and write different types of papers; they will learn some essential skills to succeed as a college student; they will (hopefully) appreciate the importance of studying history and how it impacts their lives.

First, let’s start with a basic question:   what is history?  According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, history is many things:  a tale or story; a chronological record of significant events, often including an explanation of their causes; or a branch of knowledge that records and explains past events (among other definitions).  As an historian—especially one who enjoys writing and reading narrative history—I’m more inclined to support the primary definition that history is a tale or a story.  Everyone has a history, whether it’s a personal history, a credit history, an educational history (provided through report cards), etc.  One purpose of the class will be to show students how to grasp the concept that by being enrolled as a student at Mansfield University, they are part of the history of the university—and, of course, to show them that if they don’t go to class, study, complete their assignments, etc., then they will “be history” (another definition from Merriam-Webster:  “one that is finished or done for”).

Of course, part of the problem is that some of them may already be familiar with some of the “quotes” about history (even if they are not aware of who spoke or wrote them) and have preconceived notions that I will have to dispel:

“History is more or less bunk.”  (Henry Ford)  Ford obviously did not realize that his business would not have succeeded if he had not learned from the mistakes others made—in other words, learned from history.

“History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.”  (Winston Churchill)  And he did—Churchill’s History of the English Speaking People, while dated, is still a classic.

“We are not makers of history. We are made by history.” (Martin Luther King, Jr.)  After all, reform movements like the civil rights movement could not occur unless there was something to reform.

“History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon.”  (Napoleon Bonaparte)  Obviously Napoleon never saw historians debate about why events occurred.  For instance, there is more than one cause for the American Revolution, more than one cause for the Civil War, etc.  The difference is that historians often politely agree to disagree; at least I can’t recall any historians fighting duels over different interpretations (or even coming to blows).

“History is only the register of crimes and misfortunes.” (Voltaire)  Ah, Voltaire, but history is so much more…it’s just that the register of crimes and misfortunes tends to be what the public wants to read.  Why else would the shelves of bookstores be overflowing with books about the Civil War?

“Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.” (Edmund Burke)  A reminder to my students every semester; most of them heed it.

“History is a pack of lies about events that never happened told by people who weren’t there.” (George Santayana)  Hmmm…I guess I shouldn’t use autobiographies in my research, because, well, they’re fiction?

“I loved history because to me, history was like watching a movie.” (Quentin Tarantino)  And that is why one of the required activities in the class will be watching “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”—I can’t find a better way to introduce the students to how history has been used and abused over the years.  Fortunately, “Spamalot” was a bit different from the movie—otherwise it might have been a bit awkward last August when I met the actor who played King Arthur.

I’ll be blogging about this adventure throughout the Fall Semester, so stay tuned….and, of course, the first order of business will be to inform them of the consequences of academic dishonesty.  There will be paperwork filed…and they will see an updated version of this poster:

It's outdated--but there is one sticker for every charge I have filed since 2003.

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About Karen

History Professor. Baseball fan. Author of two books, one of which I force my students to buy and read. You want me on your Trivial Pursuit team.
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2 Responses to Why Study History?

  1. Jeannie says:

    Sounds like a fun class. Speaking of history, I would like a history of your “Wall of Shame”. How did you choose the stickers?

  2. Karen says:

    History of the Wall of Shame: Started last year, was kind of prompted to do it by the Dean at the time (who has since gone to greener pastures); he mentioned that one of his colleagues at a previous university had started tallying the number of academic dishonesty charges he had filed. I decided to be a bit more creative and went with the board. A friend at another college suggested the name/title for the board, and the stickers each represent a separate charge of violating the university’s academic integrity policy. Regarding the stickers–I needed a visual image (something better than tally marks), and, well, when you have a Vice President who is a confessed plagiarist…the rest, as they say, is history.

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