Why History Matters
_ As far back as we can see in human existence people have been telling stories about the past. How else can we interpret Neolithic cave paintings? Drawings of the hunt recorded the number of animals and the number of hunters. Looking at the drawing later - even generations later – could trigger stories of that day’s triumphs and heroes. Who knows, perhaps there were “keepers of the stories”, the first historians.
History matters primarily because it is one of the bedrock, irreducible ways of understanding the world. There are comprehensible causes to things that happen and people – through diligent study and attention – can connect causes and effects. History is not uncovering documents, amassing or memorizing facts. It is the struggle to ask a question that matters of material from the past.
And what makes a question about the past matter?
First, such a question can make us both humble and hopeful. For example, if the question is “How long do empires generally last?’ And the answer is “Two to three generations”. We might, from this pattern, be more humble about wanting to form an empire. And we might be hopeful because many groups somehow survive imperial adventures.
Second, the right question makes us aware of our responsibilities to the future. Just as choices made in the past affect us now, choices we make now will impact generations to come.
Third, a good question makes us aware of the commonality of human experience, as well as differences between ourselves and groups from the past. At best, seeing others struggle with problems, whether they succeeded or failed, promotes empathy and understanding.
Finally, there is the sheer delight of discovering and sharing a pattern to some set of events that seemed unorganized and meaningless.
All of us are historians.We all tell stories of the past. The struggle and the joy is the search for questions that matter.
Dr. Stewart Gordon
_Stewart Gordon, Ph.D. is a Senior Research Scholar
at the Center for South Asian Studies at the University of Michigan
and author of several books on Asia and world history.
He is the recipient of numerous fellowships for research and travel.
Stewart regularly conducts workshops for high school,
community college and university teachers on the teaching of history.
He has consulted on documentaries for
the Discovery Channel and History Channel.
He has traveled extensively throughout Asia and Europe.
He resides in Ann Arbor, Michigan,
and in his spare time carves folk art automata.
Dr. Gordon's Vita
Photos: (Top left) a 16th century fort on the Malabar coast of India, (Top right) Dr. Gordon in the garden at the Sackler, Washington D.C.
News: NEH Selection of "When Asia was the World" - January, 2103
On January 10, 2013 the National Endowment for the Humanities announced the titles selected for its "Muslim Journeys" initiative. From the many libraries that applied for the "Muslim Bookshelf" 826, from across the country, were selected. The bookshelf consists of five books each on on history, literature, the Muslin-American experience, the faith of Islam, and the lived experience of Islam in other countries. "When Asia was the World" was selected as one of the five books in the history section.
In addition to placing multiple copies of the book in libraries across the United States, each grantee library has committed to at least one presentation by a "bookshelf" author in the next two years. I expect to many of these talks. So far, Ypsilanti, MI has booked me and Missoula, Montana has contacted me.
Information on the program, the books selected, and the institutions receiving the bookshelf can be found at