“Studying history is the ultimate passport to the future”

Anna Whitelock considers the role of the historian, and the new challenges and opportunities of the digital age...

This article was first published in the October 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine

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Has there ever been a better or more important time to study history? The past is alive, dynamic, controversial and hugely relevant. History is constantly being written and rewritten, contested and reinterpreted. History is more than simply looking backwards and studying the past – it is also about critically engaging with the present and the future. It is about individuals, families, nations and the global community. 

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A history degree is not just for those who want to be professional historians – it is for anyone who is curious about the world around them and who wants to be a critically engaged citizen. It is, in fact, one of the most versatile subjects you can choose to study. Facts and dates are merely the basic building blocks. Historical study teaches us to think critically, analytically and creatively, to read and interpret all kinds of information, to evaluate opinions and to write persuasively. 

A history degree can lead to a career in law, business, publishing, heritage, teaching, media or politics, but is equally valuable for those wanting to become an artist, author, actor or even computer-game designer. History is both a science and an art, combining the careful analysis of evidence with compelling storytelling. 

The study of history is so much more than learning about kings, queens and governments; it is also about societies all across the world and how people have lived over the centuries. It is about justice and injustice, innovation and continuity, freedom and repression. It is about race and religion, ideas and beliefs, about travel, exploration and discovery, about medicine, sex and death, about architecture and art, literature and music. It is, in short, about life. To be a historian is to be questioning, to have a vivid imagination and an insatiable curiosity.

In publishing and in broadcasting, history is a phenomenon that continues to exceed expectations; television shows, films, books, plays and computer games attest to the huge public appetite for all things historical. 

Yet beyond entertainment, or ‘edu-tainment’ as some would have it, studying history is also a means of critically informing public discourse. In a world of fast-moving technological change and a preoccupation with the future, it might seem there is little need for history and for reflecting on an apparently very different past. Yet historical knowledge is a powerful currency for the 21st century. The huge contemporary challenges of climate change, migration, inequality and the future of capitalism all require a long-term global perspective and historically framed arguments. Too often, policy decisions and political debate are characterised by short-termism. History, properly studied, should inform public policy and democratic debate. History teaches us about continuities as well as changes, and reminds us about the timeless qualities of human behaviour. It enshrines collective experience. History is vital to the development of both a national and an individual sense of identity; it allows us to make more informed choices about the future and to hold politicians and policymakers to account. 

Communication revolution

The digital age has brought new opportunities for historians, opening up archives online, digitising documents and allowing the study of far-flung archives from home. That said, there is nothing better than visiting an archive, touching documents written hundreds of years ago by our ancestors. Studying history gives you access to this vast treasure trove. 

The digital age has also created new challenges. Curators and archivists now have to be engaged in both the actual and the virtual world, handling the documents themselves but also sharing and promoting archives online. There has been a revolution in communication, with tweets, texts and emails replacing letters and telegrams. Studying history also requires students to consider what the archives of today will consist of for future generations of historians. What should be preserved? How? By whom? And for whom? These are the practical challenges and ethical questions facing historians today. 

Historians are custodians of human experience and society’s conscience. They are teachers and writers, yes, but also revolutionaries, artists, policymakers and opinion formers. Far from being backward-looking and rooted in the past, the study of history is the ultimate passport to the future.

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Dr Anna Whitelock is reader in early modern history at Royal Holloway, University of London.