Changing Your Perception of the History Major
As a history major, I’m often asked, “What are you going to do with that?” This question reflects a dismissive attitude toward the study of history. Although such a view is understandable – as scholar Peter Stearns points out, “Historians do not perform heart transplants, improve highway design, or arrest criminals” – history is nevertheless an essential field of study, both from a secular and religious perspective.
In 1998, Stearns published an influential article entitled “Why Study History?” for the American Historical Association. He argued that history is essential for understanding the present. How so? Stearns suggests that if one wishes to analyze contemporary society, one cannot rely exclusively on current data. History provides information unavailable in the present. For example, how can one evaluate war during times of peace, without using historical materials? Without historical data, how can one analyze national elections, which are extremely difficult to replicate in experiments? Additionally, Stearns argues that history sheds light on contemporary issues, because the past causes the present: “Any time we try to know why something happened – whether a shift in political party dominance in the American Congress, a major change in the teenage suicide rate, or a war in the Balkans or the Middle East – we have to look for factors that took shape earlier.”
Using history to understand the present isn’t only important for academics. History has many real life applications, especially in the realm of politics. Consider Harvard University’s Applied History Project, directed by Graham Allison and Niall Ferguson. The project’s manifesto urges the next American president to establish “a White House Council of Historical Advisers,” citing Thucydides’ observation that “events of future history will be of the same nature – or nearly so – as the history of the past, so long as men are men.” Allison and Ferguson suggest several assignments that the president could delegate to such a council. For example, the president could ask his “applied historians” to identify historical precedents for the ISIS phenomenon. Applied historians could assist the president in his affairs with foreign nations, by determining how a state’s history affects contemporary issues. If a financial crisis were to occur, applied historians could draw upon their knowledge of previous economic downturns to help rectify the situation.
Beyond its benefits for society, historical study provides rigorous intellectual training for students. Although many think of history as simply rote memorization, the discipline actually has many analytical components. As Stearns notes, “The study of history builds experience in dealing with and assessing various kinds of evidence…sorting through diverse, often conflicting interpretations…[and] determining the magnitude and significance of change.” Not only do these aspects of historical study provide intellectual fulfillment - which is a means for increasing people’s creativity and productivity - they also hone skills that are applicable to many disciplines and careers, including law, business, and management. Additionally, participating in historiographical debates sharpens one’s communication and writing skills, invaluable tools for any profession.
My defense of studying history has thus far come from a utilitarian perspective. However, the study of history also contains a religious dimension: Judaism values the study of history. As the Torah states, “Remember the days of yore; understand the years of the generations” (Devarim 23:7). Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman (1874–1941) emphasized that the plain meaning of this verse applies to all of history, not just Jewish history. Assuming that God is the ultimate cause of all historical events, the study of history is essentially the study of God, of His interaction with the affairs of mankind. True, it would be idle speculation to attempt to decipher the divine plan – after all, how can one presume to understand God’s intentions? - but that is not the goal of a religiously oriented study of history. Rather, such study of aims to know God simply by observing what He does. Analysis of various cultures throughout time and space – including our own – improves our understanding of the world that God created.
There is another reason why history has its place in the life of a thinking religious individual: its subject matter, the human being, is sacred. Rabbi Shalom Carmy, in a 2011 article for Tradition, argues that the “vigilance and care with which Halakha invests the details of our daily lives are ridiculous if those lives and the multitude of actions and feelings and thoughts that define those lives lack such importance… Our obligations and solidarity with our fellow human beings require us to take their existence seriously.” Rabbi Carmy further argues that studying the past enables us to challenge the way we live in the present. Judaism, he claims, is “countercultural; it can only flourish by forging an alternative to the culture around us… And so, we study history and know that the mores and forms of early 21st century Western culture are not the only way to live.” Rabbi Carmy concludes, “The more we can creatively mobilize the sweep and scope of human experience in all its forms, the better we can put in perspective the attractions and faults of our society.”
If you really want to see what studying history is all about, there’s no substitute for doing it yourself. YU offers many intellectually-stimulating and thought-provoking history classes. For example, last semester, Professor Jeffrey Freedman taught “The History of Emotions,” introducing students to an emerging field in historical studies, with fascinating methodological issues. For example, consider the following questions: what constitutes an emotion? Are emotions social constructions – varying across cultures and eras – or are they universal in nature? How can one historicize emotions, and what sources can a historian use for such study? In the answer to these questions lies insights into the astonishing variety of the human condition.
So, what am I going to do with a history major? I am going to understand the world in which I live. I am going to sharpen my analytical skills. I am going to learn about God’s creations. I invite you to do the same.