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How to Take a Foreign History Crash Course in 5 Steps

by John Hewitt Nov 3, 2008

Americans have a reputation for being ignorant of world history, and perhaps with good reason. When your country is the most powerful and wealthy in the world you expect other people to learn about you.

But when you’re a traveler that tendency tends to hamper your understanding of foreign cultures. US culture is unique in that it places relatively little importance on history. It can be a bit of a shock to discover that people around the world still care very deeply about events that transpired hundreds of years ago.

Learning the history of the country you’re visiting enriches your experience and helps you connect with people more easily. You endear yourself to others when they can see you’ve taken time to learn about their culture before visiting. It’s a sign of respect.

Here are five ways you can give yourself a crash course in foreign history.

1. Get a university library membership.

Non-students can frequently acquire university library memberships either for a small fee or by proving their local residency. Even if you have money to burn on books, it’s hard to beat the convenience and ease of a massive library with experienced staff.

A halfway decent library will also offer foreign newspapers, academic journals and historical archives that would otherwise be very difficult to acquire.

2. Network with experts.

Going with blind library searches can be surprisingly successful if you know how to shape your terms and pick books efficiently. You can also save yourself considerable labor by just contacting an expert.

History professors are generally very willing to field questions from both students and the curious. Even if they don’t have time for a conversation with you or to field your emails, ask them to send you a copy of their syllabus.

You can pick books up off of it easily and bulk up your knowledge without having to worry about picking up out-of-date books.

Foreign correspondents and authors are also good resources. Don’t be shy – people are generally flattered to receive questions from curious knowledge-hunters.

If no one wants to talk to you, try identifying yourself as an independent journalist conducting research. It works!

3. Use bibliographies as springboards.

If you find a particular article or book interesting, follow the footnotes. If you like the work of a particular author, and they liked another work enough to cite it, there’s a good chance that you’ll derive some significant value by following footnotes.

The only potential pitfall with this approach is that you’ll likely only develop deep knowledge of one side of the issue or only learn about the perspective of a particular academic clique.

4. Learn the language.

You can pick up a lot from only reading English-language publications, but your knowledge will be very limited if you can’t converse in the native language of the particular culture you’re learning about. It is much easier to learn how to read a language than it is to learn how to speak or write it well.

Learning the language also opens up foreign newspapers to you. Staying abreast of current events in your target country will enable you to understand the context of the history that you’re studying much more effectively.

5. Specialize fast.

The faster that you specialize in your studies, the quicker you’ll derive value from them. You can spend forever trying to get the general sweep of history in your target country and then forget most of it within a week or two.

If you’re particularly interested in one aspect of a country’s history – or that of a particular locale, cultural group or period in time – follow that interest.If it excites you, there’s probably a good reason for it. Listen to your own passion.

Community Connection

Beyond the history, it can be great to learn about your destination’s music, art and literature, too. Click over to Julie Schwietert Collazo’s Before You Go Guide to Cuba, chime in on the Before You Go Guide to New York City in the forums, or check out Eva Holland’s South Africa Reading Guide.

Got some advice to share? Sign up for the Matador Travel community today and post some blogs of your own!


Specialization is great before a trip, but a little general knowledge never hurt anyone either! Give travel writing legend Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything a try, or check out Norman Davies’ monster classic, Europe: A History.

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