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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Why study history

<ry class gets a bad rap.  For many, history was the useless subject they had to take in high school when they could have been taking more “valuable” courses in the hard sciences.  They often look back in disdain, wondering why they were forced to learn about and form written syntheses on things that “just happened.”  Or, worse: they take history just because it fulfills a requirement and then blow off the class.  Historians, after all, don’t track the human genome, draft bills in Congress, or design progressive technology.  They live in the past, pondering things that have already happened rather than concentrating on the here and now.

So what’s the point of studying something that “just happened?”  There are too many reasons to count. 

I’ll begin with the classic argument that you heard growing up.  Being educated about the world around you is the entire purpose of schooling, and learning about how mankind got to this point in history is an integral part of doing so.  With no context as to what happened before your life, how would you know how to structure yourself as a human being?  Our nature as people requires empirical evidence on how to live, and that’s what history gives us: a guide on how to – and how not to – conduct ourselves. 

This brings up another point.  The bad side of history is a comprehensive manual on what not to do.  Those who study history see war, famine, and genocide – and more importantly, they see how these things came into being.  A progressively and historically enlightened population would have more of a chance, in the twenty-first century, of foreseeing and preventing the actions of a new Josef Stalin, Mao Zedong, or Adolph Hitler.  In simple terms, knowing how bad things happen can prevent them from happening again.  What could be more valuable than that?

History is also the ultimate blend of disciplines.  As the study of change in society and human tendencies, it combines psychology, cultural studies, economics, politics, philosophy, religion, sociology, anthropology…the list goes on.  A study of any historical event will inevitably bring in questions from each of these angles, and that’s what makes it so interesting and applicable.  Take the American Revolution, an event hammered thoroughly into our heads since the third grade: how did mob mentality come into play in resentment towards the British?  Did people think for themselves or accept the popular view?  Why?  How?  How were the actions and beliefs of the rich different from those of the poor?  What were the differing religious philosophies of the respective groups?  How did this play a part?  How and when did the Americans form a cultural identity for themselves?  Universal questions like these, which can be adapted and used in any number of past, present, and future social phenomena, matter.  They have a highly relevant impact and will make a difference in what happens right now.

I’m not advocating a life exclusively dedicated to history.  I know I won’t have one.  What I am saying is that the skills garnered from an intensive study of history – which is certainly offered here at Carleton – are ranging and can apply to any discipline.  Having knowledge of the mistakes people have made in the past can and will help prevent you from making the same ones in your job.  I don’t speak only of broadly taught history – what about the history of your company?  How have people been successful in the past?  Who have been the overachievers that made it to the corner office?  Whose actions will you emulate, and whose will you disregard?  The study of this kind of history parallels the kind of study you do of ancient China or eighteenth-century Africa here in college and uses the same exact skills.

So, go cure cancer, banish governmental corruption, and invent time machines.  But remember how studying history helped you get there.

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