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I have never received a good answer to, "How do I learn history?" So I figured it out on my own. The following is what has worked for me.

Why learn history?

- Makes one's place on Earth more meaningful.

- Gives old literature / mythology context.

- Makes current events and politics sensible.

- Makes one extremely intellectually well-rounded.

- Upgrades your Bullshit Detector to version 2.0 when people start talking about controversial politics.

How to learn history?

The place to start learning history is world history. After getting an overview of world history, you can decide on a specialized topic and research good resources for that specific topic. Even if you have a topic picked out beforehand, learning about world history might make you decide on something different. Additionally, knowledge of world history will give you context for specialized topics.

Geography is a central part of learning history. If you aren't familiar with Earth's geography, much of world history will not make any sense because there will be references to countries and places that will be nothing more than a meaningless name if you can't locate it in your mind in relation to other places. You should know major mountains, seas, rivers, regions, and the borders of nations and empires (how they evolved).

As you read, you should have a map open that you can reference. These are the two I use:

This is National Geographic's World Map. It has the locations of all major geographical and political features and it seems current. When you zoom in, more details and features appear.

This is TimeMaps. Indispensable reference. It has a map of major regions relevant in world history, and allows you to jump to major periods in world history showing the evolution of nations and peoples as empires crumbled and populations migrated.

I recommend the following resources in the following order:




(4) The History of the World - Roberts & The Earth and its Peoples - Textbook

Comments on the above:

- For Crash Course, I casually watched it, I didn't take notes. He oversimplifies, but it's a crash course. The purpose was to get a taste, a bird's eye view, before diving into a book.

- I read Roberts' book and the history textbook in tandem. I read the chapter summaries on the cengage website and do the quizzes.

- When I come across new names of places, I always look it up on the Nat Geo map, in order to make the region and its people meaningful.

Other things I've liked so far:

I brute force memorized some geography on this site.

Dan Carlin's Hardcore History - Podcast.

Podcast History of Our World. Work in progress. He has been consistently adding a new episode about once a month.

Edited by Michio
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"Upgrades your Bullshit Detector to version 2.0 when people start talking about controversial politics" 'kin A!

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A very vague and unhelpful guide. Why start with world history? Surely there should be enough in a person's life for them to know where they'd like to start. For example, I'm English, and my GF is Belgian-Israeli. If I decided to start learning history, I'm more likely to feel an affinity for English, Belgian, or Israeli history than for a place I've got no personal connection to. If I study world history, I have to start with a specific place, so that's my specific location chosen without having to learn little tidbits about places I don't care about.

I don't need an extensive knowledge of geography to study history. I don't need to know much about Waterloo in a geographical sense except for its rough location, and key features of the battle site, which any half-decent historical narrative (or whatever) of the battle will describe in adequate detail. I don't need to know the layout of Paris, or whence and wither the Seine runs to study the French Revolutions. In fact, beyond the basics (which, again, should be included in the history texts if necessary), I don't need to know any French geography. If I know Paris is the capital of France, and that France is in Western Europe, and that France is just across the English Channel, I have enough geographical knowledge to get started with the history of the French Revolutions.

When learning history, where to start is open to debate; however, IMO it is a good idea to be able to give one's own honest, educated answer to the following questions:

  • What is history?
  • Why do I want to learn history?
  • Which of the different methods of studying and writing history do I most agree with?

After answering those questions, the answers to which should vary from person to person, one might want to begin not with history, but with historiography; this will facilitate the learning of history by giving one a greater understanding of it.

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* What is history?

* Why do I want to learn history?

* Which of the different methods of studying and writing history do I most agree with?

One reason someone might want to learn history would be a dissatisfaction with the present state of human affairs. If the past is different from the present, then the future can be too. Similarly, if you're dissatisfied with nature, you might want to study science. While you may not be able to defy nature, science can at least tell you what limits are really set by nature and what are only contingent on your present circumstances - nuclear reactors don't defy the laws of nature, but they were still inconceivable 100 years ago. It could be said that dissatisfaction is the engine of history and of science since someone completely satisfied with their lot would feel little inclination to change things or to torment themselves with endless wondering about how or why things came to be so or what might be instead.

One question that arises from the above (assuming we still have an appetite for tormenting ourselves with such questions), is whether there can be a state of human affairs where no dissatisfactions of this kind arise: a condition in which science has reached perfection and history comes to an end. If we feel uneasy with that idea (perhaps only because what is equilibrium to one person is not necessarily equilibrium to another), then perhaps we should ask what value does the study of history bring beyond that of entertaining us with stories?

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