Why History Matters

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Why History Matters

This essay will critically analyse, evaluate and interpret the reasons why history matters. These can be separated into two categories (with several subcategories) that are intimately intertwined with each other. The first category being the skills which History teaches an individual person, and the second the wider impact (positive and negative) these skills can have on a society by having a populous well-versed in them. With this, there come several sub-categories as to why history is significant; such as how national histories can forge a culture and national identity that groups can share (using texts studied in this module such as Evans, Mandler, Ferguson, Schama etc.). All of these reasons will be evaluated.

The first notion is the skills that History imparts on an individual. The foremost of these being the critical, analytical thinking; along with what Stefan Berger calls ‘healthy scepticism’[1]. The reasons why these skills are essential are complex, the first being the capability to question everything you digest. It empowers you with the competence to scrutinize texts for hidden agendas or motives behind actions. Asking “who wrote that?”, “why did they write that?”, it generates a world of understanding to all the subjective information people are presented with in society since the development of cheap mass printing. Pierre Abelard identified this with his Sic et Non[2]. Richard Evans also provides an insight into this approach, stating ‘Documents are written from somebody’s point of view, with a specific purpose and audience in mind, and unless we can find all that out, we may be misled’[3]. The lack of this skill can have a profound impact on society, drawing upon examples of government propaganda; not least in Nazi Germany inciting racial hatred for the Jews. If the German population were to have reviewed more critically the information they were furnished with, and encouraged to question everything being proposed to them, would Hitler have gained such an avid following?

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Another skill is the proficiency to help you learn from not only mistakes, but also ‘right’ decisions composed in the past, which is something that is not gifted enough credit. Too many historians focus on the correct but too narrow-minded view that you can only learn from mistakes made in the past. For example, in an article on the History of Medicine, Virginia Berridge talks of the establishment of the Health Protection Agency ‘the committee reviewed its own documentation to make sure it was being consistent in its decision making, or was not repeating mistakes.’. In this, she makes ...

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