I was looking around the site to find the answer to the oft-asked question: 'Why Study History?' But I couldn't find that question anywhere. The closest question was this one, which was closed because of its argumentative nature.

That is the problem with this question - I think it can be very argumentative. But it is also fundamental to the field of history. I am new to this SE; I spend most of my time at MathSE or PhilSE. At MathSE, this type of question would (and has) survive if formulated properly. At PhilSE, it would not (I think). I think this is due to the continued use and support of use of Community Wiki (CW) for questions that are of questionable content, despite the general trend at SO to phase CW out. This, in turn, I attribute to the fact that MathSE has an incredibly large and active user base, so a few questions can be tossed in even if they do not fit perfectly within the SOP of the SE model.

Perhaps I find the idea of asking a question about 'why studying history is useful' due to my background as a mathematician. As a mathematician, people often ask me why we bother studying math to the extent that we do (e.g. what do we ever do with geometry? Who really uses calculus, and why should high schoolers learn it? And so on...), and I answer it all the time. I suspect that historians can do the same.

So how should I formulate a question, addressing the importance of studying history, so that it will be acceptable on this SE?

  • If you are not familiar with SE sites, then this may help. SE sites are intended to be Question and Answer sites where people can get a clear and concise answer. Questions like this don't have a clear cut answer. The only answers they can have would be opinions, and that doesn't meet the criteria. Any question that solicits discussion or opinion falls outside the realm of acceptability. The SE sites are not intended to be discussion forums. Commented Dec 28, 2011 at 4:24
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    @Steven: I am a 12k user at MathSE, and a moderator at PhilSE. I should note that you can see my rep on all SE networks by clicking on my profile. This is how I can tell, for example, that you are most active on WritersSE. Back to this one - I am seeking help in formulating an appropriate question that addresses this topic. Am I to interpret your response as you voicing your belief that this is impossible? Commented Dec 28, 2011 at 7:24
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    Sorry, I didn't take the time to check your profile, so I'm sorry if my response offended you. I wouldn't say it is impossible to rephrase your question appropriately, I was simply explaining why it wasn't acceptable as is. We haven't built up a real active community yet, so it may take a while for folks to chime in with suggestions. Commented Dec 28, 2011 at 12:26
  • @Steven: Thanks for your help. Commented Dec 28, 2011 at 13:57
  • Maybe after the community builds up it might be an ok question if framed, but I think now it's hard to justify in the presence of trying to build up the repository of knowledge and get the site out of Beta. Although if you look at the Q&A structure of History it's a bit different than Math, where why you like it might give a direction as to where you focus your attention. I don't see that yet within History where you are basically studying to learn the truth about a subject, or do research. Why a particular area is more geared towards interest.
    – MichaelF
    Commented Dec 28, 2011 at 21:21

2 Answers 2


I would say that it would be too broad to be able to have an authoritative answer, and thus off-topic (though with the same caveat as commenters - I would NOT vote to close it if it was asked much much later, once the community has a critical mass and a single not-great CW question with useful content in the answer would help rather than hurt).

As is, you can probably try for more precise one. E.g. my own personal take (not great but better):

Is there an example where learning history has practically helped a non-historian in his life, in a way that would be helpful to many other non-historians.

  • I think that is a great related question. It will soon appear on the site. Commented Dec 29, 2011 at 10:16

Well, it seems to me that a good way to ask a subjective question on a history site is to ask about the history of opinions on that issue. As DVK says, specific questions are more suited to this site. How about:

  • How have the arguments for teaching history in American high schools changed over the past century?
  • What western college was the first to offer a course in world history?
  • Has there been a literate civilization in which the literate class was not expected to be familiar with its own history?
  • What were the similarities and differences between history's role in Chinese, as compared to European, gentlemen's educations in the 19th century?
  • When and why did the study of ordinary people and everyday life become a respectable part of history?
  • How did Dewey's reforms affect the teaching of history?
  • Was history taught differently in women's and men's colleges in the early 20th century, and if so, why?

Any of those would touch on the issue of why people study history, without inviting vague platitudes or endless discussion.

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