The Perks of Being a History Major
Don’t believe me? We’ll see what the history books say.
Yasser Ali Nasser, University of Oxford
Not all majors were created equal.
I am a big proponent of people studying what they love rather than what might make them the most money, but at the same time everyone must all accept a fundamental truth: In the economy that we live in, certain subjects and disciplines are bound to make you more money than others. If that is how you value a degree, then there is little doubt that the sciences are far more valuable.
But, perhaps there is more to life than how much you can eke out of the modern economy. Don’t get me wrong—everyone all need to make money to survive, and denying that would reek of privilege. Studies show, though, that just going to college alone can go a long way to helping you do well. Thus, while your major can make a difference, having a degree in and of itself already does a pretty good job of making sure you can have a sustainable future.
As such, there is an argument to be made that you may as well study what you want. The humanities have often been derided as useless. After all, how’s an English grad going to contribute to society in the same way as an engineer or a chemist? I would say that’s a pretty flawed argument; it measures “impact” in financial terms as opposed to cultural or intellectual ones. Indeed, it is argued that the students of humanities are uniquely positioned to solve global issues. And, perhaps most importantly, if someone wants to major in sociology because they are interested in the topic, is that not a healthier attitude than someone majoring in programming because they want to make money, even if they find that it’s not particularly interesting?
So it’s been established that the humanities are useful, and people aren’t making an inherently horrible decision when choosing to study them. Good.
But what’s the best humanities subject? What field really best represents what the humanities stand for? What major can you choose that best incorporates the rigorous analysis of the social sciences with the robust dynamism of creative writing?
But why? Hell, of all the humanities subjects that one can think of—from English to anthropology to creative writing—history rarely comes to mind. It is more often than not denigrated as being, well, a little boring. History textbooks that people remember from high school are pretty emblematic of that: dry, irrelevant and full of dates.
In fact, that middle one is probably the criticism I hear the most. History is irrelevant. The study of it is irrelevant to our current problems; understanding when the Treaty of Westphalia was signed is hardly going to help tackle climate change, and nobody really wants to go through the definition of blitzkrieg over and over again. Why major in history, people ask, it’s just going to be like high school, right?
While I won’t disagree that the way history is taught in schools is hardly useful, I think all the focus on dates and battles and names sort of misses the point of why people study history. Studying history, especially in college, is not so much about memorizing a bunch of dates or the definition of “pagoda,” but rather it’s about stories. History as I see it is a collection of the greatest stories ever told. It’s the stories of all of humanity, and human civilizations. You like studying literature? Well, you’d better get the history books out too—understanding the societies authors lived in and what made them tick, as well as the political and intellectual climates of the day, only enhances the reading experience.
What if you aren’t too interested in stories, but would rather spend your time analyzing culture or societal structures in the vein of anthropology and sociology? Well history has plenty of that, too. From scholars that focus on pre-CCP Chinese religious rituals to historical studies on the American West from the perspective of Native Americans, historians hardly only focus on military matters or big personalities.
Perhaps you’re interested in anime and Japanese culture—books by the likes of John W. Dower will cultivate those interests further. Or maybe you want to know a little more about the Civil War without going through the same rigmarole of dates and battles like in middle school, focusing more on the emotional impact of the war; in that case, Bruce Catton’s “A Stillness at Appomattox” will definitely be up your alley.
That’s all well and good, I hear you saying. So history is interesting, sure, and it has elements of the other humanities, but how does that make it useful? At the end of the day, history is still about the past, and we live in the now. Why should people study a bunch of old, dusty tomes, instead of trying to solve the problems we face today?
The two aren’t mutually exclusive, that’s why. If anything, they’re pretty interconnected.
The present, and indeed the future, is forged in the past. The tumults that the world confronts have their roots in the tumults of old. A great example of this would be the chaos that we currently see in the Syrian Civil War, with a variety of factions vying for control. Those factions, including ISIS, did not just develop out of nothing—they represent interests and trends that have been developing for at least half a century, if not more.
And historians have often left a pretty big mark on the world outside of academia. The impact was not always positive, however, such as when imperialists like James Mill helped to justify the British Empire’s exploits in India. But this just furthers my point. History and the people that study it are important, which makes it all the more crucial to understand that it is a discipline that must be taken seriously. Hell, in the United States we had a president and prominent politicians that all studied history at college and were clearly well versed in the topic.
Most importantly: History is fun. As this piece has made abundantly clear, I am very biased here, but honestly history as a topic is what I’d call a “big tent major.” That’s what makes it so unique amongst the humanities—it can bring in people that study political science, literature, anthropology, psychology, philosophy, foreign cultures and more. Hell, there are even subdivisions of the field dedicated to the study of the history of science, medicine, engineering and more. Do you want to learn the intricacies of Roman construction, or Vietnamese medicine in the 15th century? History can offer all that and more.
So next time, instead of just shuddering when you remember your old, boring history teacher from the 11th grade, give the proper study of history a chance. Because, remember: History is the best major there is.