– By Kevin Flatt
My life is saturated with history. I teach it every fall and winter term at Redeemer University College, in the form of courses on everything from the development of Western Civilization to the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century. I carry out historical research and publish the results in books and academic articles. I write the History Lesson column for Faith Today.
As my wife will tell you, I even have an endearing (annoying?) habit of waxing eloquent in the car about local history while we’re driving through the town of Kitchener-Waterloo where we live.
In short, I’ve devoted a big part of my time and energy to studying and explaining the past. But is this a good use of time and energy? What is the point of studying history?
This isn’t a fashionable question among professional historians. During my graduate school days I would often pose this question to professors and fellow students and few had any answers. In fact, some found the question inappropriate or offensive. How dare I ask someone to justify their choice of discipline! Isn’t it enough simply to find the subject interesting?
My thinking, however, is quite the opposite: if you’re going to devote yourself to something, you should have good reasons for it. To be sure, I began studying history simply because I found it fascinating. But for a fascination to develop into a legitimate calling, there needs to be something more.
Therefore, over the years, I’ve developed a list of what I see as the purposes of studying history. This list could be expanded a bit, but I think it hits the main bases.
1. To bring delight
While this isn’t the only reason to study history, I’ve come to think of it as a valid one. We love to tell tales and have tales told to us, and there is something special about a tale “based on a true story.” Every historical work is such a tale, and thus has the potential to delight both the teller and the hearers. Just as there is value in writing and reading novels and making and watching well-made films, so too there is value in recounting and enjoying the non-fictional tales of the past.
2. To understand the present
To understand the past is to better understand the present. When we uncover the roots of present day realities, we can see those realities more clearly. For example, when students in my Western Civilization overview course learn about the Enlightenment, a hugely influential intellectual movement of the eighteenth century, they get a better sense of the ruling spirits of our own culture. They learn names and categories that help them make sense of some of our society’s deepest convictions.
3. To test our ideas about “how the world works”
We all have certain ideas about the way the world works, like “religion is the main source of conflict in the world,” or “lower taxes lead to economic growth,” or “people are basically good.” But do these ideas fit with reality? Studying history is one of the best ways to find out which ideas are plausible and which simply can’t be maintained in light of the facts.
4. To broaden our perspective
Like travel to distant lands, the study of history allows us to get outside the assumptions of our own time and place. C.S. Lewis put it this way:
We need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion. A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village; the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.
5. To warn and inspire
History gives us lots of examples to be either imitated or avoided. This is how the Bible itself often uses history. In the book of Hebrews, for example, chapter 3 uses the rebellion of the Exodus generation as a warning for Christians, and chapter 11 inspires us with its triumphant procession of the faithful saints of the Old Testament. While the Bible is God-breathed and the writings of today’s historians are not, we can still look to the past for examples that warn and inspire.
So that’s a brief look at some of the main reasons why we should bother to study history. My hope for each History Lessons column is that it would serve one or more of these purposes for Faith Today readers.
Kevin Flatt is an associate professor of history at Redeemer University College, where he is also the university’s Director of Research. He is the author of After Evangelicalism: The Sixties and the United Church of Canada. He tweets at @knflatt and lives in Kitchener, Ont. He write the History Matters column for Faith Today.