The importance of studying history

Nihal Manjila, Staff Writer

I remember when I took my first history course at Case Western Reserve University, expecting the course structure to be similar to high school history classes. I entered the classroom prepared to memorize important dates and facts to regurgitate back to the professor through an exam or a paper. However, I was surprised to learn that college-level history courses required more than just this rudimentary overview of history. These courses required understanding substantial ideas and views alongside critical thinking to determine the nuances of a historical moment. While this was certainly different from what I had expected, I grew to enjoy such courses and went on to declare history as one of my majors.

Each course covered a diverse range of topics and allowed me to understand the norms and cultures of people living across time and space in history. Writing research papers forced me to look deeper into that which we take as fact, realizing the extent that we, as a society, oversimplify complex matters in our understanding of history. This process taught me to be open-minded when it comes to new information. While history certainly has many clear rights and wrongs, much of it lies in a gray area and is up for interpretation. These interpretations are valuable, as they help us understand our history better. 

This brings us to disciplines that draw heavily upon history, such as politics, law and medicine. Contemporary politics seem to be increasingly polarized between the left and right in the United States. Though there are many contemporary issues leading to this divide, there are also historical factors that explain all the events and decisions leading up to these current tensions. Time and again, people with political influence have swayed the polarization seen today. In recent years, conservative politicians and pundits have used fearmongering and lies to motivate their voter base. This method of politicking has a long history, and while modern iterations are new, the framework is not. 

As an extension of politics, history has heavily influenced the law. The U.S. Constitution is the basis for American law, with its creation influenced by the norms at the time; however, the history of that document continues to affect public policy today, such as gun rights. Furthermore, historical U.S. Supreme Court cases have carried out decisions that also have consequences in the present. The monumental 1973 decision of Roe v. Wade protected abortion rights for nearly 50 years until its recent overruling. History continues to shape the basis for our legal system, especially regarding human rights.

Medicine is not free from its history, either. While humans have aspired to provide quality medical care throughout history, many errors have been made along the way. Modern medicine is currently built upon supposed pillars of ethical conduct and mindful practice; however, the path to this point is replete with horrific experiments and the mistreatment of minority populations. The scientific basis for certain medical treatments has often harmed minority groups. Modern medicine still contends with similar issues, such as Black women’s high maternal mortality rate. We can only understand such disparities in healthcare through their historical context and resolve them through effective solutions that target the sources of these disparities. 

While not every person needs to be a history major, everyone can benefit from taking a history course or doing some reading in their free time. It is crucial to be knowledgeable about our past because it plays a prominent role in shaping the modern world. Without history, we would try to make decisions and improve society without knowing what has been helpful and what has not. Furthermore, learning about historical wrongs helps ensure that such things never happen again. 

History matters.