It’s not uncommon for people to find history the most boring subject in school. It often gets a bad rap in popular culture, too. In Harry Potter, for example, the History of Magic teacher, Professor Binns, drones on and on and frequently puts his students to sleep with boring lectures about arcane material. When I tell people I study history, they say that they either love it or hate it. And it usually depends on how engaging their high school history teacher made their class. Long lists of unfamiliar names and distant places. When was that war? Who was the president back then? It’s no wonder most people tune out.
But history isn’t about memorizing old dates and facts. History is about critical thinking, problem solving, and using evidence to make arguments. It’s about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and looking at the world through their eyes. It’s about crafting engaging stories and compelling narratives. (Let’s not forget, the only time Harry and his classmates become interested in the History of Magic is when Professor Binns tells a riveting story about the legend of the Chamber of Secrets.) Anything you find interesting in your life, whatever you’re passionate about, has a history. This is why I find it endlessly fascinating.
Before I got into history, I was interested in current events. I’ve always had a passion for politics. When I heard various leaders use different stories about the past to make political arguments about our present and future, I became further drawn to history. Why do we keep talking about the American Revolution and the Founding Fathers? Who were these people? What did they say? I started to study history to better understand my own current moment. History in textbooks can often feel stale and uninteresting. Why should I care about what this person thought 300 years ago? How does this impact my life? But the best history books make you think differently about your place within the world and the big problems facing society today.
This is why I love teaching history so much. Many of my students aren’t just interested in understanding the world, they want to go out and change it. This usually starts when students take arguments and ideas from people in the past and apply them to their own lives and see whether they remain relevant or useful. The best moments of teaching are seeing the light bulbs turn on when students realize that just because something has been done a certain way for a long time doesn’t mean we should keep doing it that way. Or when they realize that a long-held assumption or point of view they’ve had about the world isn’t shared by everyone else. This is the power of studying history.
Even if you don’t go on to study history in college or get an advanced degree in it, I encourage you to take a history class. Or at the very least pick up a history book on a topic that interests you. The critical thinking and writing skills you’ll learn will give you a leg up in whatever you choose to pursue in life. Our world would look very different today, I think, if we all just read a little bit more history.