The Importance of Studying Western History

western history

In the past half-century historians have transformed our view of western history. They have shifted from Turner’s triumphal tale to a story of struggle and loss, often of self-defeat. Historians who wrote such influential surveys of what came to be called “the new western history” as Patricia Limerick’s The Legacy of Conquest and Richard White’s It’s Your Misfortune and None of Mine asserted that the West was a place where the conquerors suffered from many misfortunes themselves.

This revisionism was fueled by the same forces that have agitated–and some would say afflicted–a great many other things in the American landscape, both inside and outside the academy. These include the fight in the early 1990s over national history standards; the broad assault, on one hand, on Eurocentrism in the academic world and in public opinion; and, on the other, the fear that an increasingly multiracial nation is suffering from too much pluribus and not enough unum.

These cultural shifts have made a great many people uncomfortable. Some feel that western history is being relegated to a sideline. Others feel that the study of western civilization is being distorted by academic fads. Still others worry that the study of western history is being harmed by politics.

Amid these anxieties, it is worth remembering that, despite its many shortcomings, the study of western history has played a significant role in shaping our culture and history. It has helped us to understand the nature of conflict, and it has taught us to appreciate the value of the human spirit.

The study of western history has also given us a unique perspective on the present. For example, it has allowed us to see that the West is not so very different from the Old West portrayed in Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. It has also shown us that the western world’s expansion into the rest of the globe resulted in permanent stress on Earth’s planetary systems.

It has also given us a sense of how the West, through its ideas and values, influences cultures all around the world. This influence is seen, for example, in the sexual revolution that has liberated western views on sex, as in the riots of 1969 that led to the legalization of abortion in America and Roe v. Wade in the United States. It is also seen in the spread of western-based economic models and the rise of multinational corporations. The Western Historical Quarterly (WHQ) has been at the center of these developments. It is our intention to continue to play a role in helping to shape and to enlighten the future of the study of western history.

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