The Practical Values of History for All and Sundry


The view has been widely held that history lacked apparent practical uses for individuals and societies and time should not be spent studying it as an academic endeavour. Even within the faculty of arts or humanities, where it was domiciled, it had been further discriminated against and described as a dying art. This accounted for why the department has recorded low patronage (relative to other more attractive disciplines) among admission seekers into Nigerian universities. Majority of the students that eventually find themselves in history got there on a second choice basis after failing to gain admissions into their respective first choices. The present article is not an advocacy for patronage for history but an awareness creation that could be beneficial to the general reading public on the numerous practical uses to which knowledge gleaned from history can be put.

Without belabouring the issue any further, presented hereunder were the practical functions that history performs to whoever cared to seek its knowledge:

Necessary Background to other Academic Disciplines

The usual starting point of any department of knowledge is the account of how it came to be. It is common to hear such things as the history of science; history of philosophy; history of international relations; history of constitutional development; history of this; history of that. What that pointed to was that it might not be wise to dabble into any department of knowledge without, first, seeking to understand its origin. A lot was considered to be embedded in the foundation of a thing that could be vital in the understanding of that thing in the present. It was for the above reason that new entrants into any academic discipline were taken through the study of the origin or history of that discipline. 

Enhances the understanding of Present Phenomena

Historical knowledge affords the benefit of the hindsight to those that have recourse to it. This was among the most widely applied knowledge of history. When a patient reported before a physician or clinician to lodge his or her health-related complaints, the doctor would not go straight to prescribing drugs. It was required of the doctor to interview the patient to obtain the case history. This involved a chain of health-related activities the patients had engaged in within a period immediately preceding to the symptoms complained of. Information obtained by the doctor from such interview often guided him or her to arrive at wiser clinical decision in respect of the patient. The same principle applied in government bureaucratic settings. Whenever an incident occurred, a panel of inquiry was often set up to investigate the remote and immediate causes of the event in question. This process would lay bare the facts and enable the managers of the situation to make well-informed decisions. The same could be said of the need for the police to carry out thorough and painstaking investigations before prosecuting cases before a court.

Imparts Wisdom and Broadens one’s Outlook

History imparts wisdom to its students through learning about the failed and successful people of the past and emulating their good deeds and avoiding their shortcomings. This was the logic behind the study of the biographies of the great men and women of yesteryears. It was fashionable to find present day politicians, and other elites, reading the biographies of Mohandas Ghandi; Abraham Lincoln; Nelson Mandela; Obafemi Awolowo and Nnamdi Azikiwe, to mention a few. In addition to increasing one’s wisdom, history broadens the outlook of its students. By studying the history of the people outside one’s state, country or continent, many experiences are gained about many other peoples from where useful inferences could be drawn to resolve issues faced locally on daily basis.

Development of Critical Attitude Needed for Wise Living

The training of a historian predisposed him or her to be critical and difficult to be persuaded. Given that historians are trained to investigate events that occurred many years (sometimes, hundreds of years) before they were born, they were equipped with the skills to scrutinise and interrogate their data and extract facts and evidence needed to support their present conclusions. This critical attitude was not needed by historians alone but by all and sundry. A critical attitude (in a positive sense) is needed for safe and wise living. All it required to fall victim of the con artists was to lack this critical attitude. Once a person is gullible, he or she would fall into the hands of the con men and women that abound in Nigeria.

The above were the examples given to establish that just anybody can find history useful. It further showed that it was not in the interest of anyone to relegate history to the background.    

R.F. Obinta, PhD

Department of History,

Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Nigeria.


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