To study history is to study change: historians are experts in examining and interpreting human identities and transformations of societies and civilizations over time. They use a range of methods and analytical tools to answer questions about the past and to reconstruct the diversity of past human experience: how profoundly people have differed in their ideas, institutions, and cultural practices; how widely their experiences have varied by time and place, and the ways they have struggled while inhabiting a shared world. Historians use a wide range of sources to weave individual lives and collective actions into narratives that bring critical perspectives on both our past and our present. Studying history helps us understand and grapple with complex questions and dilemmas by examining how the past has shaped (and continues to shape) global, national, and local relationships between societies and people.
The Past Teaches Us About the Present
Because history gives us the tools to analyze and explain problems in the past, it positions us to see patterns that might otherwise be invisible in the present – thus providing a crucial perspective for understanding (and solving!) current and future problems. For example, a course on the history of public health might emphasize how environmental pollution disproportionately affects less affluent communities – a major factor in the Flint water crisis. Understanding immigration patterns may provide crucial background for addressing ongoing racial or cultural tensions. In many ways, history interprets the events and causes that contributed to our current world.
History Builds Empathy Through Studying the Lives and Struggles of Others
Studying the diversity of human experience helps us appreciate cultures, ideas, and traditions that are not our own – and to recognize them as meaningful products of specific times and places. History helps us realize how different our lived experience is from that of our ancestors, yet how similar we are in our goals and values.
History Can Be Intensely Personal
In learning about the past, we often discover how our own lives fit into the human experience. In October 2015, a UW alumnus named Michael Stern contacted Professor Amos Bitzan for help translating letters from his grandmother, Sara Spira, to his parents. Bitzan was able to integrate some of the letters into his class on the Holocaust to bring to life for his students the day-to-day realities of being Jewish in Nazi-occupied Poland. As Bitzan explained, “I realized that Sara Spira’s postcards could be a way for my students to integrate two facets of the study of the Holocaust: an analysis of victims and perpetrators.” And if you have ever seen an episode of “Who Do You Think You Are?”, you’ve seen the ways in which historical research can tell us amazing stories about our ancestors – stories we might not ever know otherwise.
“Doing” History is Like Completing a Puzzle or Solving a Mystery
Imagine asking a question about the past, assembling a set of clues through documents, artifacts, or other sources, and then piecing those clues together to tell a story that answers your question and tells you something unexpected about a different time and place. That’s doing history.
Everything Has a History
Everything we do, everything we use, everything else we study is the product of a complex set of causes, ideas, and practices. Even the material we learn in other courses has important historical elements – whether because our understanding of a topic changed over time or because the discipline takes a historical perspective. There is nothing that cannot become grist for the historian’s mill.