I have obtained a bachelor of science in secondary education: social studies with a history dual major and have just began graduate studies in secondary social studies education. With all that I know about history it is only recently that I have truly began to ponder the question "What are the practical applications to studying history?" I have struggled with this question while I was student teaching the last semester of my undergraduate degree. I would always have to work hard to convince kids that not only can history be fun to study, but it can also be useful to know. Most of what I told them worked, but it really was a bunch of fluff that most people my age would be able to call me out on.
My first history book that's not really about history
I'm assigned this book for my historiography class and it's providing me with a few answers and many questions. I think that by reviewing what people think history is and how it is treated may help address the practical implications it may possess.
History is generally treated as the cumulation of events in human history. But when I think of history I think of the sum of everything that has ever happened. Screw mankind, we are but a blip on the timeline of earth, not to mention the universe, or the beginning of time. It's not surprising though for people to place supreme importance on their own lives and species' existence. I'm sure some see history as I do, but it is rarely treated as such in the classic history mentality.
But not to get too caught up in definitions or semantics, one of the most popular ways to try to show people that history is important is to tell them that we, as a whole, must learn from the past in order to avoid the mistakes we have already made. This way of thinking is saying that by using information from past events, we can analyze those events and act accordingly in the present.
My main problem with this line of thinking is that it is very difficult, therefore, very rare, to be able to put events of the past in the context of the present. Most recently, I can remember people citing that the U.S. should not invade Iraq because Russia had already tried it and it had failed. People reasoned that we should not repeat the mistake Russia made. Although this is a sound argument, the U.S. is not Russia and it just seemed like most people could not relate the two events sufficiently.
Hell, the U.S. is better than Russia, just watch (The) Miracle (on Ice)
History is also studied in order to try to create a better tomorrow. The events of the past are sometimes seen as unfolding not in a linear way but in a cyclical pattern. History repeats itself so not only do we have to learn from our mistakes, but we also have to prepare for the future. (This view of history can be debated, but I'm just trying to examine various ways of looking at history and how practical it can be). Assuming that there are at least recurring themes for all events that have ever happened and will ever happen, we could at the very least attempt to understand the psychology of human behavior, or at most predict future events (and try to get in touch with our inner Nostradamus).
Going with the understanding human behavior application, Gilderhus' book states that we are "better able to calculate the anticipated consequences of our own acts." On the flip side of that, we can study the unintended consequences of human actions. To some degree I believe we can achieve the goal of learning about historical events and the purposeful or accidental effects they carry, but just because someone has settled on an effect does not mean it is the correct one.
Just watch the History Channel. It's full of programming about things people don't actually know.
The truth is that history is full of inaccuracies, most of which we will probably never know the degree of. How can you write down the real facts of an issue when the only historical documentation you have are two conflicting accounts of the same event. The best you can do is give both sides of the story and if you're feeling ambitious give your own opinion on the matter.
Not only is the truthfulness of the events in history debatable, but so are the studied causes and effects historians describe. If people do learn about the past, how often can we apply the knowledge to the present to prevent us from doing dumb things? How do we know we even accurately assessed a past event? Is it worth trying to predict the future by analyzing human behavior when the only thing we know for sure is that human interaction is complicated and uncertain? If everyone views history from a different pair of eyes, each pair having its own individual and unique experiences, whose history is the right history?
So now I'm left with the question of how I can explain to students why history is actually important and practical, preferably using more substance than fluff in the answer. And the truth is that I have no fucking idea.