Why Study History?

30 Oct

I’ve debated posting on this almost since I began blogging. As I started this blog the issue of King’s College London eliminating the Palaeography Department was a very significant item of discussion among medievalists. This relates to the whole, “What good is history?” conversation that seems to come up whenever higher education is facing budget cuts. It even became one of my first blog posts though I didn’t really know what I was talking about.

One of the reasons I haven’t made this post is I’ve been unable to think of a way to do this effectively that won’t relate strongly to what I do in my real job. When I began this blog I considered anonymity. I understand why many bloggers choose to do so however I did not (and do not) intend this blog to be about that part of my life and I also love my job. Is it perfect? Hardly. Are there things I might gripe about from time to time? You bet – you find the perfect employer and I’ll be convinced you’re removed from reality. But I enjoy what I do tremendously and can’t think of a situation where I’d engage in a negative discussion of my employer. So I wasn’t worried about being identified. However I am also a boring person. I want people to come to this blog to read and discuss history. People won’t be interested in reading about me and this topic is deeply rooted in my personal experiences in “nothistory.”

To be brief, I work at a major US research university which has traditionally focused more on the sciences than the humanities. I am a member of one of these more science-based schools and departments. I believe our humanities are very solid with many outstanding faculty members and students, but they don’t receive the recognition the sciences and engineering do. And I think history and the study of history is very important.

What finally urged me to make this post (I always figured this would happen – it’s been trying to burst from me for a long time) is Guy Halsall’s recent post on the value of studying history. It should be obvious that our perspectives will be different. He’s one of the foremost research historians on the planet, at least for the period I’m most interested in. I’m, well, I’m what I wrote in the above paragraph and, as I state in the upper right hand corner of this blog, I have no formal history training and haven’t taken a history course since my junior year in high school. Dr Halsall has chosen to focus on the value of studying history as it relates to current events and making informed decisions about what’s going on in the world. I’m going to choose a different aspect and illustrate it with an anecdotal example – me.

Several years ago we did a survey study of what the major employers hoped they were getting when they hired graduates of one of our departments. This has been presented publicly so I’m not divulging any secrets. They found that the vast majority of employers were looking for graduates who fit into one of two categories. For one category, they wanted new hires with technical knowledge and ability. These employees could walk into the workplace, understand the processes/procedures used and possess the skill set to “hit it” and immediately set about doing whatever the employer wanted them to do. The second category were employers looking for graduates who possessed critical thinking skills. These companies expected their workforce to be exposed to a constantly changing business environment where the ability to learn, think, and assess information was (and is) essential. I don’t recall which of these two categories was larger but they dwarfed the other responses. So having students in the sciences take substantial coursework in the humanities, or at least classes that require the analysis of sources of information (there are courses like this within science departments), is a very reasonable and, IMO, desirable program of study.

Does this mean I’m arguing that, the next time we find ourselves forced to make retrenchment decisions based on limited resources, we should cut the sciences instead of humanities? Hardly – folks further up the food chain who are smarter than I and have access to much more information will be making that call. What I’m saying is I don’t buy the argument that the humanities are unimportant or should automatically be discounted in favor of the sciences. They form an important part of a balanced course of study which will benefit students in all academic programs. This must be considered.

This brings us to the section of this post which will be substantially about me – sorry folks. As Dr. Halsall said, the vast majority of history students will not spend their lives employed in history. Most won’t be professors or high school history teachers. They won’t be museum curators or work for the History Channel. They’ll work in some other job, as a college/university graduate.

Overwhelmingly, we live in an information age. We are exposed to a massive amount of information originating from a tremendously varied selection of sources. How do we decide which sources are valid, viable, reliable and may be used to make quality, informed decisions? How will, say, a corporate purchasing director decide between the information presented by the representatives of multiple product lines? Which research and promotional material(s) is/are valid? Which sources can you trust? The ability to critically examine and assess source material, so essential to historical study, will be invaluable here as well as in a lot (I can’t quantify this – hundreds? thousands?) of other jobs and careers.

I am not going to try to describe my job because the system in which I work is somewhat unique and takes far more than a blog post to explain. As a woefully inadequate description, I help people and communities solve problems, address issues and take advantage of opportunities utilizing the knowledge of the university (and other universities) as well as my own knowledge and skill set. I have recently become highly involved in a new opportunity that has come to Indiana. This was not an area which my university had engaged in extensive research in so I was unable to use this as a major source of information (this has been changing but even here, our engineering school is not looking into those aspects I needed information on). Instead I had to look elsewhere to educate myself and those I worked with regarding a host of issues related to this.

By engaging in this process I helped develop our local community’s response to this and now I travel around the state helping other communities deal with the issues related to this topic. This area has become somewhat controversial. Various individuals, groups and stakeholders have offered a wide variety of opinions and papers, research reports, etc. on the topic. Without the ability to critically assess the validity of these information sources through an understanding of research methodology and textual analysis, I would have been unable to help with this effort, at least to this extent. And this is important; something which has the potential to transform a community for decades to come. We have to get this right, or as right as we possibly can. My study of history – completely as a hobby and without any grounding in formal study or, even, much methodological knowledge – was and continues to be an invaluable aid. This is not the exception, but rather the rule. I use these skills, those I have gained from a completely informal interest in history, on an almost daily basis.*

So in the end, though my focus is different, I’m 100% with Dr. Halsall. This is the information age. We are bombarded with thoughts and opinions on all sorts of topics. How are we – all of us – to decide what’s worth listening to and what should be ignored? The study of history; training in the examination of sources of information and the ability to critically assess their validity; is a wonderful addition to an individual’s toolkit of skills which will help him or her get along in the world. I encourage people to consider this and, for the student charting a course of study in higher education, don’t just bury yourself in the technical courses. Use your electives wisely and take some coursework which will help you to learn and practice critical thinking skills. I think you’ll find this useful as you move through life, whatever your career choice.

*I should mention that I have colleagues who are excellent at what they do but do not have my interest in history. They have developed a skill set they use effectively but for me, what I’ve picked up through my interest in history has played a large role in how I approach information gathering as a step toward addressing issues and solving problems.


Posted by on October 30, 2010 in Amateur Tips


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4 responses to “Why Study History?

  1. colossusofevil

    November 2, 2010 at 5:01 pm

    I enjoyed this discussion from a fellow medieval history buff.

  2. Cecelia

    November 10, 2010 at 5:31 am

    I do agree that studying History promotes the development of critical thinking skills – but I do think we should not abandon the notion that history is important and worthwile to study because 1) those who know not their history will surely repeat it – the past does have lessons to teach us and 2) something about our responsibility as "keepers of memory" which would take too long to explain here I fear if the best argument in defense of the humanities we can make is "critical thinking skills" then we are doomed –

  3. Medieval History Geek

    November 11, 2010 at 2:43 am

    You are of course entitled to your own opinion. I was simply offering my own perspective.However, while it's nice of Pogo to have given us such a catchy phrase, unfortunately it's mostly inaccurate. A far better statement in my opinion would be, "Those who study history learn that we are doomed to repeat it."Time after time men and women in positions of power, including many with advanced humanities education including in history, have shown us that in fact those who have studied history DO repeat it, often disastrously. They do so because they are people who make decisions based on their own beliefs, value systems and desires; in many cases a desire as simple as to hold onto or expand their power. Next to these internal motivations, historical knowledge seems to be of minimal concern in their decision making process. When things come crashing down and these people are reminded of past events the response is quite frequently, "I know – I didn't think it would happen to me." I wish people did learn from history (beyond how to build a better mousetrap) but to this point in our evolution, there's no indication that this is likely to happen any time soon.In fact, I'm pretty leery of works of classical or medieval history where the author tries to equate events to the present day and use them as object lessons. It is SO hard to equate distant events under extremely diverse circumstances and involving people who lived their lives in such different times and environments. It's a classic mistake of failing to consider, as fully as possible, the context within which these events occurred.When more recent events are used and historians point to the dangers of, say, politicians adopting increasingly narrow, partisan positions, I find it more meaningful. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to have much impact on how people in governmental positions choose to behave today, despite the fact that the majority of them, at least in the US, come from a legal background and have had substantial education in history.As to the second statement, I would become very concerned if I thought most historians believed they held a privileged position which gave them the right to take up a position as gatekeepers of our memories. Fortunately, most of those I have met do not seem to believe this (or they're very good at hiding it). Most seem to realize that they aren't the owners of history, just those with a particular skill set which may help all of us gain a greater understanding.This is exactly the argument that is often used to argue against funding history; that there will only be a select few who will benefit from it by becoming historians or working in related fields. I think those who value history and other humanities need to point out to people that creating a cadre of trained historians (or sociologists, psychologists, etc.) is not the only or even primary goal, but to help people learn how to think effectively, which I and Dr. Halsall have already discussed in our respective posts.

  4. Medieval History Geek

    November 11, 2010 at 4:52 pm

    Correction: The "Those who fail to remember the past" quote is from Santayana. Not sure how I mixed that up. I'll claim a late post following a day full of meetings as my excuse.


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