Why Study History

As we announce our History Scholarship for the year 2021/22 the Le Sallay Academy's teacher of history Dr. Melinda Rice reflects on the importance of the study of history: 

At a time when the pandemic feels all-encompassing, it is hard to understand why someone would study the past. Today, history seems even more petty, a dilettante’s escape from the present to the distant past. But to think of history as irrelevant is to fundamentally misunderstand the essential role of the history and humanities in shaping human lives. One historian has described the study of history as a laboratory of human experience. And the past offers many examples of humanity facing uncontrollable illnesses: the Spanish Flu, Cholera, Black Death, Antonine Plague. Some of these you may have read about, others may be less familiar. These events give us new knowledge and hope. We see the choices people made to manage epidemics; we can analyze what worked and what did not. This knowledge can reassure us, teach us and offer remedies for present day ills. 

Above all the humanities understand that human beings are storytellers. The ability to communicate, persuade and explain complex ideas to the public is its hidden superpower. Beautifully written history is dramatic and elegant; but more importantly, it gives coherence to facts. Scientists can devise vaccines in record time or track the origin of a virus outbreak. But that work is meaningless if it cannot be communicated to the public. The humanities are the bridge, the only bridge, from experimental data and sophisticated research to comprehension. 

At the moment there are many competing stories about the virus, vaccines and the role of government. Only the humanities can help us understand how people believe certain ideas and why change their minds. Why do people at one moment in time trust government and science and at another moment doubt every authority? History gives us the skills to explore these important questions. It helps us understand change. And while we don’t know what will happen in the future, we do know that it will be different.

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