May 5, 2017

Why You Should Be a Student of History

History is a great teacher. It’s not just for students trying to get their high school diplomas – there’s much it offers us today.

A common assumption is that the study of history is just a study of irrelevant facts. Why live in the past when we are living in the present? It certainly doesn’t help you get a job in the same way studying Engineering does, so what’s the value? Below are 3 reasons you should commit yourself to the study of history.

History helps you think better

History provides a framework for thinking and dealing with current events. Everything that happens is a result of what happened before. We can better understand how cultural values and beliefs came to be and trace their evolution through time. Putting on your history goggles lets you engage in more fruitful and interesting conversations. Often times we find our conversations come to a premature end because we simply do not know enough about the topic to continue. History helps us to be more well-rounded thinkers who can engage with a wide variety of topics.

History also helps us think because it forces us to ask the question: Why? Brilliant new discoveries and massive cultural movements find their roots in the past. Instead of taking current events for granted, we are challenged to think critically about them and better understand where they came from.

How much we understand when we read the Bible is also influenced by our knowledge of history. Being able to read the Bible within its historical context allows you to understand why a specific book or passage was written. For example, what was happening in the world that caused Peter to write such a dire warning in the book of 1 Peter? Why were Christians being put to death? Being able to answer these questions allows you to read books like 1 Peter with a new perspective.

History helps you teach better

Every sermon or teaching I do I try to have a few choice illustrations that bring it to life. Studying history gives me a huge treasure trove of fascinating people and events to draw from that still have something to say today. When we rely exclusively on contemporary examples and illustrations, we lose out on much of the impact available to us from history. The historical advantage is that we get to see how specific events and individuals impacted the world. We can see their full story from an event or idea’s inception to its lasting legacy.

For example, I was recently teaching on the need for Christians to fight for what matters. Eternal values are on the line and we need to find the proper motivation in our cause so we can win people for Christ. The illustration I used was that of General George Washington in the fateful and decisive year of 1776. General Washington and his Continental army was out-manned and outgunned by their British enemies by a wide margin. They suffered defeat after embarrassing defeat, and the cause for American freedom seemed lost. On Christmas Day in 1776, General Washington made a bold move by crossing the Delaware for a sneak attack, and that small victory was enough to encourage the troops and American citizens everywhere. Armed with a righteous cause and emboldened by the hope of victory, the small rabble in arms would eventually win the war. I connected this with Christ’s great victory on the cross and the cause of eternal life as our motivation.

“Merry Christmas, Brits. Hope you like lead.” – George Washington, 1776

History is fun

No fiction book ever written can match up to the great drama of history. It has everything you need for a great story: Action, love, suspense, plot twists, betrayals, despair, hope,  and redemption. History is also a great source of satisfaction for the curious. As a curious person myself, I love sitting down to read a good historical book to see where it’s going to take me. Such great works have been published that help me connect with the people and places of the past. Historical biographies are especially fun for me – by the end, I feel like I’ve gotten to know the person as if they were my friend.

To become a student of history, you first must develop a love for it. Otherwise, it will feel like an endless slog through mind-numbing material. I think every person can love history if they set their mind to it. Below is my own suggested historical reading list to get you started. Feel free to leave other suggestions in the comments.

  • 1776 – David McCullough
  • John Adams – David McCullough
  • The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: a History of Nazi Germany – William L. Shirer
  • Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln – Doris Kearns Goodwin
  • Unbroken – Laura Hillenbrand
  • A Short History of Nearly Everything – Bill Bryson
  • Ancient Rome: The Rise and Fall of an Empire – Simon Baker
  • The Civil War: A Narrative – Shelby Foote
  • The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to Present Day – Justo L. Gonzalez
  • Podcast – Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History

1 Comment

  • I agree that understanding the basic philosophical movements in history can help us think better and more clearly, rather than blindly accepting whatever happens to be the popular worldview. In this sense, you don’t have to know lots of details about history, which I think is what some people find boring. Instead you can aim to grasp the general flow.

    For more detailed accounts, “creative nonfiction” became popular in the 1970s and brings the drama and details of history to life in ways that read more like a narrative/novel. I enjoyed “Freedom at Midnight” which is about India gaining independence.

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