Why History Matters

The World You’ve Inherited

The study of history expands our individual awareness of lived experience to the whole of humanity, in all time periods. 

In truth, the many questions we ask about our lives and ourselves take on greater definition when we turn to our forbears : how did people of the past live, and under what conditions? What were their outlooks, hopes and expectations in life? What beliefs did they hold about themselves, and their place in the world? And what were their “works and days” – what did they do – from the most ordinary of gestures of daily life, to the greatest (or most terrible) accomplishments that have withstood the test of time?

In a nutshell, curiosity at the plight of our ancestors – if sustained long enough – compels us to question the world we have come to inherit : why did humans develop culture, technology, religion, and social structures, and how did these many developments take shape during the course of history? 

Short-Term vs. Long-Term View

By contrast, the erasure of historical consciousness that is characteristic of our times makes us all suffer from amnesia, or hypermnesia – too little, or too much memory – in which our ability to give meaning to the the passing of time is seriously hampered.

The study of history thus brings within our reach the full scope of human social development, across time and space. Armed with the lessons of history, we can begin to consider our contemporary problems from a long-term perspective. Thus, history can serve as a corrective to the virtualized time of modern life that locks us into an “eternal present” – this narrow band of time ruled by media cycles of current events, electoral politics, or mass entertainment, the 24/7 echo chambers of social media, the eternal return of the work day or of holiday time, the standstill time of unemployment or retirement, or even the dreamed-up time of technological mastery sold to us by our most ardent futurists, ever on the cusp of our attainment.

One Humanity, Many Histories

In our case, we affirm that the study of history is also part of the tradition of letters, or “humanities”. We call humanities these ancient modes of investigation of the human condition through the tradition of letters – sowed in Greco-Roman antiquity, developed in the “obscurity” of the Middle Ages and formalized at the time of the Renaissance – today bearing the name literature, philosophy, and history.

Thus, our conception of history bears the mark of “Western civilization”: that of a slow and progressive secularization of time, centered on the subject becoming aware of her or his condition in a given historical moment. That said, if this vision of historical time once carried forward a Eurocentric project of “civilizing” conquest, we would rather, in critical opposition to this tyrannical singular time, construct historical time in both a universalist and pluralistic vein – to emphasize how humanity inhabits many worlds, and experiences multiple temporalities and conceptions of lived time.

Finally, with our project, we propose to share the latest findings in research, pedagogy and critical thinking in the humanities, in order to contribute to the promotion of the humanities in education and in public life. In our conception of human knowledge, the humanities remain essential for the learning of citizenship. The rich modes of investigation of the humanities enable us to think our world in all its complexity, and help situate us in the lineage of those women and men who have shaped our world, so that we can better forge our individual and collective destinies in a world still to be made.