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4 Skills to Learn by Studying History

And not one of them is “to prevent repeating past mistakes” – although that is a perfectly good reason to do so.

They say to study history or else to risk repeating it; But all that that prepares you for is forty years of teaching it. Randall Munroe

1. Appreciate diversity.

It is simply impossible study the story of peoples around the world without falling in love with a new culture or two. Start digging into the history of Ireland, Hawai’i, China, Egypt – we can all find something to captivate each one of us. Each culture has a unique story to tell and history invites us to come and learn, to appreciate the people rooted in it.

2. Problem solving, with a multidisciplinary approach.

I have no patience with history courses taught as a subject full of nothing but names and dates. History is an interdisciplinary field, and seeking truth about the past is like deciphering the clues of a crime scene. History has both microscopic and telescopic approaches; we can zoom in on the lives of ordinary people, or zoom out to see the trade of economic goods and philosophical ideas as nations rise and fall.

A good introduction to the history of any country or ethnic group will include notes on that peoples’ politics, economics, philosophy, religion, literature, sociology (including gender norms and hierarchies), art, language, dance, science, medicine, how they prepared their food, how they raised their children, and what was commonly believed about things like war and slavery. Both great names and the faceless masses have tales to tell. If we want to understand why events rolled out the way they did, we must consider the entirety of culture, how its people thought, and what its people loved most.

3. Gratitude.

Penicillin wasn’t discovered until 1928. Our world of “You scraped your knee and it got infected? No big deal here’s some antibiotics” did not exist less than a hundred years ago. Toilet paper has long been unique to China, first appearing in 600AD and not making it to the rest of the world until the 19th century. And while the Romans had aqueducts to maintain some level of sanitation in their city, this apparently fell out of use in the rest of Europe after the fall of their empire; Medieval villages and cities were notoriously unhygienic.

Not to mention, luxuries like the human rights, a fair trial, and the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are all fairly modern inventions. Yay for the modern world!

4. Empathy.

In the 14th century BC a teenage couple buried their miscarried daughter. Not long after, a second miscarriage followed. The ancient Egyptians did not mummify most children who suffered this fate (they believed you didn’t become human until birth), but Tutankhamen and his wife Ankhesenamun made sure that both of these girls were carefully mummified. They were grief-stricken young parents, and this was part of their mourning process.

There are plenty of moments like this. Historical moments, with the power to connect us emotionally to an individual who never knew we’d exist. We can read letters written by a Roman woman to her sister – her urges to “visit soon” and “don’t forget me” sound so today. Every once in a while, a moment can become so real it induces some sort of existential crisis, and we realize the people of the past, however foreign their customs and beliefs, were somehow exactly like us.

And now, they’re gone. Just thousands of people living ordinary lives, existing each for a moment (or less), influencing none but their own social circles, before a burial by their families.

Whenever I read through the Pentateuch, or the Chronicles (both in the Bible), I rarely skip over those long and burdensome genealogies. And I think this ‘existential crisis’ rooted in history-sparked musings is why. Each one of those people – a fellow, who lived, had a family, and died – is named, one after the other. And somehow, it is warming to me to know that each one of them, so distant to us, too commonplace to warrant even a brief comment on their lives, is known and loved by the God who created them. As are the others – the ones not even named.

My God is writing a grand story, composed largely by lists of nobodies. No matter how small and insignificant I am, it is a privilege to be a part of His plan.

  1. Do you like history? Why or why not?

  2. What topics outside your major or area of expertise most grab your interest?

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