Why Study History?

Why study history? The answer is because we virtually must, to gain access to the laboratory of human experience. When we study it reasonably well, and so acquire some usable habits of mind, as well as some basic data about the forces that affect our own lives, we emerge with relevant skills and an enhanced capacity for informed citizenship, critical thinking, and simple awareness. The uses of history are varied. Studying history can help us develop some literally “salable” skills, but its study must not be pinned down to the narrowest utilitarianism. Some history—that confined to personal recollections about changes and continuities in the immediate environment—is essential to function beyond childhood. Some history depends on personal taste, where one finds beauty, the joy of discovery, or intellectual challenge. Between the inescapable minimum and the pleasure of deep commitment comes the history that, through cumulative skill in interpreting the unfolding human record, provides a real grasp of how the world works.—Peter Stearns

Two Views

“History should be studied because it is essential to individuals and to society, and because it harbors beauty.”—Peter N. Stearns

“Historical knowledge is no more and no less than carefully and critically constructed collective memory. As such it can both make us wiser in our public choices and more richly human in our private lives.”—William H. McNeill, Why Study History? (1985).

Why Study History? (1998)

Questionnaire: Why Study History?

The history major provides both a stepping stone towards dynamic careers in many industries and preparation for ongoing contribution to civic life. As part of a continuing effort to advocate for the BA in history and highlight the value of historical thinking, the AHA invites responses to a new "Why Study History?" questionnaire. The questionnaire consists of two sets of long-answer questions about individual experiences with the BA in history. Your answers will help shape the AHA's response to the nationwide decline in the number of history majors and the downward trend in history enrollments. 

Questionnaire: Why Study History?

Directory of History Departments and Organizations

2016-17 DirectoryThe Directory is an invaluable tool for anyone interested in a comprehensive look at the history profession across the United States and Canada. Colleges, universities, and historical organizations provide annual information about their programs, faculty and staff, and specializations. Institutions: Find out more about listing in the Directory.

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Member Testimonial

I grew up in a village of 500 people in Delaware in the 1950s, and attended a segregated elementary school. I was curious about the social dynamics of this small place-how various social distinctions came to be and what they meant for the people who lived there. Eventually I realized that the best way to answer those questions was to study American history.

Jacqueline Jones on "Why Study History"