Reasons for Studying History
© 1996 by Harlie Kay Gallatin, Ph.D.
Some of the greatest minds this world has ever produced have wrestled with the same questions that brought you to this page. What is history and how is it to be understood? Is it ultimately worth our time and attention or are we just deluding ourselves? Is is possible to acquire an education without studying history?
Taking the last question first the answer is simple. Learning experiences that are selected for their relevance to making a living do not necessarily prepare you for living your life. That kind of preoccupation with cash-flow frequently sees the study of history as a poor investment. Albeit, there is much more to life than success in accumulating material riches. Among all those investments that enrich the joys of living many find history one of the most rewarding.
A number of specific reasons for studying history are typically expressed. It serves as an avenue to enrich the enjoyment of travel, cultural events and broad reading. It helps us understand people in other parts of the world today who think and act differently than we do. It provides us with the perspective to be able better to interpret and evaluate the present, especially in recognizing and evaluating changes. A knowledge of our heritage helps us appreciate who we are and makes us conscious of our role in fulfilling the promise of that heritage and preserving it for future generations. In short it makes us better citizens and leaders in our communities.
The one human trait above all others that makes civilization possible is the ability to preserve an organized memory of the collective endeavors of the past. It is that collective memory of common experiences that transforms scattered individuals into a cultural community, and eventually forges a coherent civilization out of scattered and differing cultural communities.
No human malady is any more tragic and debilitating than the loss of long-term memory as all who are acquainted with the devastating effects of Alzheimers know well. The person who loses his or her memory loses his or her identity as well as the ability to participate meaningfully in society. Just as you need your memory to function as an individual even in the most restricted setting, we also need an adequate grasp of the collective memory to function as a society. Indeed, your potential as an individual to contribute positively and creatively to the present civilization depends on the degree to which you have comprehended the collective memory of who we are and why we're here. Unfortunately, the frightening corollary is that when it comes to the potential of an individual to impact civilization negatively the only thing more effective than total ignorance is a measure of distorted knowledge.
For the more philosophic among us there is no subject that poses the challenging question of why any more often than history. In indentifying causal factors and answering that question the historian draws on skills and insights from all the humanities and social science disciplines. Such examination reveals, among other things, the degree to which history is directly shaped by collective human action. For some this contingency of historical development on the collective actions of individuals is a very disturbing concept. Indeed, contemplating the impact of collective human action on the future is both sobering and exhilarating. But it is a very good reason to study history.
For some the contingency of historical development is a source of reassurance. For the Christian who knows the personal experience of God working in his or her own life the historical record preserves the kindred experiences of past generations. History also illuminates the otherwise hidden hand of the gracious, merciful and soveriegn God working through imperfect human lives, lives very much the products of the prevailing culture. Just as men and women in the past were limited by their cultural heritage in responding to God's grace, we likewise today remain, willy nilly, the prisoners of our culture. Nevertheless, the contemporary Christian, like the humble saint of centuries past, enjoys a citizenship in a higher kingdom. For these reasons, among others, we study history to gain knowledge of our Christian heritage.
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Is Teaching Your Aspiration?
To teach history at the secondary school level you must be certified as a secondary school social studies teacher in the state where you teach. In some states you may be able to receive a temporary teaching certificate based on your general baccalaureate degree and major in history, but this is not something to count on. In most states you will be required to have completed certain specific course requirements before being certified. Even if you are certified in one state there may be additional course requirements to be regularly certified in another.
If after you graduate with a bachelor's degree and a regular history major you decide you want to become a social studies teacher there are two remaining options:
- You can complete the requirements for social studies certification as a special student, or
- You can complete your social studies certification requirements while completing the requirements for a master's degree.
If you are just beginning you college work you should consider the social science education major. It is specifically designed to enable the student to complete the certification requirements as part of a bachelor of science degree program.
Go to The Social Science Education Major;
Teaching at the Post-Secondary Level?
If you aspire eventually to teach at the college level the standard minimum qualification for teaching history and or political science to college freshmen and sophomores is the Master of Arts degree in the subject taught. It is almost never necessary to be state certified to teach at the post-secondary level. While the experience of teaching in secondary school is very valuable, probably necessary for those teaching in graduate departments of education, many teachers in other higher education disciplines such as history or political science have no secondary school teaching experience.
A Doctor of Philosophy degree in the subject taught is the desirable minimum qualification for teaching more advanced undergraduate and graduate courses. The doctoral degree program can be initiated on the basis of a baccalaureate degree in some cases, but it is typical for the masters degree program to be completed before starting the doctoral program.
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© 1996-2012 Department of History & Political Science