The past surrounds us with its impacts, its traces, and its complexity. To understand who we are and how we got here as a society, as a culture, and as a country, history provides explanations. Those who study history do so for a variety of reasons—to understand ourselves and the world we live in, to explain the tragedies and the triumphs of our times and of past times, to grasp the present, and to prepare for the future. Studying history is also fun, since real people and their actions are often stranger than fiction.
Historians undertake their research and analyses from distinctive perspectives. Thinking like a historian helps train the mind to embrace the complex world we live in. As historians research, analyze, and produce their interpretations of the past, they hone the mental skills useful for contemporary living. Using the documents produced in the past, we interrogate such sources with analytical questions like: what is the context for this? What does it really say? What were the motives for creating the document? Is this a unique situation or is this representative of humans elsewhere? How to construct an argument out of those findings to prove our conclusions? Using such methods of analysis contribute to training the mind to think critically and creatively. So apart from learning about the past, studying history helps create an educated citizenry, people who can think for themselves.
Why pursue the past? Ultimately, for some people, studying history scratches that itch of the past. We wonder about who did what to whom and why, how something was invented or a place discovered, or what happened when different groups of people came together in war or peace. Sometimes, that itch is just a desire to find out about local history, about the people, places, and events of the community and region we live in. Studying history engages our curiosity about the world around us, past and present, and challenges us to think analytically and to wonder about other peoples and other times.
A final utility of History is that it trains learners for future employment. From teaching in a classroom to assembling a history exhibit, from documenting the current actions of government or organizations to researching the past at a National Park, historians find employment in schools, museums, historic sites, and heritage agencies. Additionally, studying the past trains us in the liberal arts tradition of researching, analyzing, and writing, skills vital for many jobs in today’s world. We believe that part of our mission is to train people to think for themselves to prepare them for the complex world we live, work, and play in.