Studying History Will Make You A Better Person

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A-level History By: Please log in to see tutor details
Subject: History » A-level History
Last updated: 30/09/2017
Tags: a level history, be a better person, gcse history, self-improvement, soft skills

"What's the point of history?"
As a history teacher, I was often given people's unadulterated opinion of my subject when asked what I did for a living. "Oh God, I hated history at school" or "I found it a bit boring, to be honest" or the self-explanatory "I did Geography". Unfortunately, my fellow adults are outside of my remit but student opinion is different and I take it far too personally when one of them tells me they don't enjoy history, often because it's "hard" and requires "too much writing".

Although, I have always done my best to convince young people of the appeals of history, a few years ago I was caught off guard when Michaela, a 14-year-old member of my form group, was moaning about her history lesson that morning. Nothing unusual here, teenagers moan about breathing. But it was when I told her to kindly stop talking and to get on with filling in her homework planner, or whatever it was we were doing, that she floored me. "Yeah, but Miss? What is even the point of history?". Now, it was 8.35 am on a Friday morning. As was the case for every day of the working week I had been at work since 7 am, stayed there until 7 pm each night before and had a full timetable of seven periods ahead of me with likely no more than a 15 minute lunch break before I began frantically printing, photocopying and laying out books for the afternoon's lessons. And let's not go into the red pen stains on my hands from all the marking or the late nights of lesson planning. In short, I was about as tired physically, mentally and spiritually as you can be at 8.35 am on a Friday morning.

As much as I would like to tell you that despite this I whipped out a response so motivating and inspiring that at least one of the members of my form was compelled to grab their phone immediately and tweet it (under the desk of course) #bestteacherever. However, as 32 moody, sleepy teenagers waited with vague interest for a response that would justify the reason for my employment, I smacked the class readers onto my desk and said something along the lines of "Oh Michaela, don't ask me such ridiculous questions before I've had my coffee! Now I think we were on page 36..." .

The story of everything
So two years later,  I am now tutoring and still think about Michaela's question. What is the point of history? Why should you study it and why am I still teaching it? I have come up with many a long winded answer that would have bored Michaela two sentences in but the truth is simply this: Studying history will make you a better person. A particularly bold claim, I know, but true nonetheless. You need more? OK, I'll be a bit more long winded.

When I was doing my history degree and thinking about future employment, I convinced a big glossy law firm that studying my degree had given me the tools to think argumentatively and analytically, to tackle large amounts of complex information and simplify it into clear and concise writing or presentations. Doesn't that sound exciting? I bet you're itching to sign up to study history right now, but I'll continue writing anyway. These were called hard skills and back in 2006, employers loved them (especially boring ones).

Now, it was true that my degree had endowed me with these dull sounding attributes but needless to say it's not why I studied it and it's not why I quit law to return to teaching it. History is so much more than I can ever write in an article, explain in a job interview or describe to Michaela. It is quite literally EVERYTHING. It is our shared global story; it is politics, economics, and empires. It is religion, wars and death.It is people, revolution, and coups. It is the birth of medicine, the rise of industry and the fall of dictators. Anybody who takes the time to understand even some of those concepts and their impact is arguably already a better person than those who choose instead to wade through oxbow rivers or colour in maps (I'm joking geographers, no hate mail please!).

But history is even more than this. History is the story of everything and all of us but it is also a way of thinking about and questioning the world. It is something you can do. In other words, it is a verb as well as a noun.

The Doing of History
Now when we start to think about the doing of history we really start to understand why this subject makes you a better person. This is where those hard skills I talked about above come in, but I think I can provide you with somewhat more compelling evidence of the worth of a historian than I did in 2006.

In order to be a good historian, not even a great one, you need to remove yourself to a safe distance from any person or event that you are studying. No ideologies or pre-formed opinions, just an objective study of the facts and evidence available to you. All cultural and social biases must be put aside, put simply, you must keep an open mind and not fixate on what you were brought up to consider good, bad, weird or distasteful. Your own upbringing or tastes are incredibly unrepresentative, despite all the retweets you get or all the double taps your Instagram elicits. Just imagine for a moment, that we were all trained to think like this, to exert a level of mental discipline when considering the events of the world. Wouldn't it be a better place to live?

Now if you'll allow me to discuss the soft skills that a historian can accumulate, I think I can further persuade you of how you'll become a better person - this bit is not quite so appealing to law firms.

In order to be objective analysers of the facts, we must also be understanding, empathetic and sympathetic. As well as developing critical faculties, students of history will also develop these 'moral emotions'. These abilities are the very basis of citizenry in a humane and open democracy. No jingoes or slogans would pierce your impartial view of the world and you would plainly understand that those who seek to use history to support their often exclusionary views are not historians at all but very canny politicians, seeking power at any expense. You will be able to debate important political ideas without deferring to the authority of self-interested politicians or media figures (I'm looking at your Piers Morgan). You will never be the man shouting angrily in all caps on social media about an election or a referendum and that alone makes you a better person.

Be a better person
So, if you are considering whether a GCSE, A-level or degree in history is for you, or indeed wondering what the point in studying history would be, consider this: Do I want to be the type of person who understands the world I live in, that sees the humanity in others and can diffuse angry, manipulative messages in the news? Do you want to be the type of person that can affect change positively as a result of your education? In short, do you want to be a better person?

Ms Nash A-level History Tutor (Hemel Hempstead)

About The Author

I am an experienced and graded 'outstanding' history teacher based in Beaconsfield. I offer a personalised, bespoke service for each of my students who will receive their own file with relevant resources for your course.

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