We asked Shenandoah University Associate Professor of History Ann Denkler that point-blank question. And guess what? She didn’t give the answer we, or you, might expect. It’s far more than learning about the past, she said. If that’s not the point, what is? Read on:
Here’s why you study history. . .
“I always ask my students on the first day of class the question you asked me: ‘Why should we study history?’ I preface the question with my telling them to NOT say ‘because we learn from the past.’ This is such a cliche and wrong answer. We say, as a country and as individuals, sure, we learn something. We might, but we hardly ever act on it. There is an incredible value to studying history, but the idea that we learn from it is highly suspect.
“We should learn from the past. We should read books and articles and diaries from the past. But we just often don’t. We will discover that historical actors are not so different from who we are today. We should, most importantly, study what people wrote, did, and made to connect to them on a human level; we should appreciate their sacrifices, their work, their love interests, what kind of parents they were.
“I tell students too that history is what happens not just in the past but in the present. Our ‘pasts’ are what we had for dinner the night before, the email we wrote to our parents yesterday, and we will reconstruct the past to fit present needs. (What student will tell a parent about what she REALLY did the first week of class.) Thus, the study of history should be suspect and questioned. That, to me, is what makes it fun. And you have to be smart to understand why people did what they did. You have TO READ to be able to analyze and critically examine historical evidence. This skill translates into all areas of study in college and life, and it is the center of my teaching and research.
“The biggest and best question is WHY, and only then is history meaningful and will connect us to the present. Answering this question will also make one very intelligent–the most important quality a person can have, and a quality that can change the world.”
Why study history in the College of Arts & Sciences at Shenandoah University? Why, to ask why!