The American Historian

20th Century American History

Why Study History?

“History isn’t just the story of bad people doing bad things. It’s quite as much a story of people trying to do good things but somehow something goes wrong.”

-C.S. Lewis

The popular trend among Americans is to be contemptuous of history, especially American history. Cynicism is reaching an all-time high and popular culture demonizes American history specifically as something equivalent with the Nazi movement or some great mounting evil. I argue that the negative outlook, led by an extremely progressive politicization, has obliterated the field of history in the United States.[1] In fact, history programs have all but been wiped out of high schools and colleges.[2] I believe this is because these men and women who dominate the field have vilified, intentionally or not, America to a point where people want nothing more to do with it. History has lost its focus. Now that I have your attention, let’s talk about why history is amazing, how much it means to me, and why it should matter to you too!

History is a personal and integral part of my life. History tells me where my family came from. I have documented my mother’s military career and my father’s successes playing professional baseball. I have found ancestry hundreds of years back to England and France. I have read the stories of my grandfather earning a Silver medal for killing an entire platoon of Germans as the last man standing from his squad during World War II. History tells me what happened to my neighbors, too. History tells me how lines were drawn, battles were waged, people were saved from oppression, and how dictators were overthrown. Evil has never prevailed in history. The tide always turns, and the intense storms always pass. The Jews were saved from slavery, Hitler lost his quest for world domination, and Americans fought each other to the death over political ideals involving slavery leading to a better America. These stories are worthwhile to remember! In fact, ideas and stories like these are just the tip of a much larger historical iceberg. There is much to learn from and to share about history.

With the study of history, you find yourself one-on-one with great leaders of the past.  The study of history places its student in a personal conversation with historical people as you study their words, their actions, their greatest moments and defeats during the problems they faced in a complicated and alien world. The historian must have the imagination to close their eyes and view the situation as if they were standing in the same historical room as these figures. To be there, as if to go back in time in a Back to the Future moment. Historians are in-fact translators of the past. We translate these stories as we analyze primary sources documents, listen to secondary sources quibble about differentiating points of view, and finally construct our own narrative of the past based up logical reasoning. 

To study history is far more than just names, dates, places, and outcomes. History and historians have been a part of civil society dating from Herodotus (c.484 – 425 BC) to Gordon Wood (present). Doing history involves understanding oneself and the proper application of critical thinking in a proper context. Historians must be able to hold a position and be open to debate. Historians must change their position based upon new facts and compare competing ideas. Often we only see current political agenda’s promulgated, which only destroys what historians have worked so hard to build.

To study history means being open to argument in its academic form; to accept criticism. History involves important skills such as historical research and analysis. The history degree is not about dusty books, irrelevant minutiae of a subject, or the weaponization of the past to blame those around us for our position in life. Instead, to me, history is about telling the story of mankind. The whole story from an objectively depoliticized position. This means the entire storytelling of wealthy political leaders of the past down to the peasants of the fields of a mediaeval Europe. Every single person who has come before us has a story and deserves to have it told and be remembered. The greatest power a historian has is to keep those of the past alive in the present mind. A civil society must also understand the past to understand the world around them and to learn from situations of the past.

The power of the historian is immense. Constructing a historical narrative is no easy task either.  To be a historian, one must first come to terms with their own self, to admit their own biases, and then to step into an objective observer role as a doctor examines a patient. To look at the past as if to be actually there, a stranger living in that past land, so that one does not judge the past by today’s standards.[3] Doing history involves taking on complicated topics of the past and digging far deeper than just the outward problem. Problems of the past are more complicated as the problems that people face in today’s world because we cannot go ask direct questions to the deceased. This leaves historians with the sometimes arduous task of investigating every angle a piece of evidence to find a rationale for an event or series of events with incomplete information.

We rely on history constantly in modern politics. How often have you heard “fact check” on the news, in debates, or in political campaigns? Often I look into the claims made by these fact checkers, and many times I am appalled by the poor historical analysis made in some of these conclusions made by both political parties. Studies have shown that the uneducated are unable to discern the validity of others ideas and their competence.[4] History allows us to decide on the fairness of the Treaty of Versailles or how Americans should reevaluate claims to Native American reservations. History gives us a guide on the past values of the American people and allows us to see how we compare today. Why should you study history? Because we need you, people that care about our world, that feel a sense of civic duty, and a calling to remember those that came before us to tell these stories. It is not an easy endeavor, but it is worthwhile.

[1] Jennifer Miller, “Democracy and Misinformation,” American Historical Association, June 10, 2019,

[2] Samantha Stearns, “What Changed in Social Studies Education,” American Historical Association, July 30, 2019,

[3] Peter Stearns, “Why Study History?,” American Historical Association, accessed August 29, 2019,

[4] John Fea, Why Study History? Reflecting On the Importance of the Past (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2013), 114.

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