As a historian holding a bachelor, a master, and a doctoral degree in ancient history, I am going to be biased about the value of a history major however I want to focus not on my own pleasure in history but the value skills good history teachers and students develop. These skills have value well beyond the classroom to benefit every day life and improve the quality of citizens.
In 2001, Sam Wineburg published a critically acclaimed book called “Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts” where he discussed the divide between when the layperson perceives of history and the historian’s view. While his title played into the general person’s stereotypes it misleads the casual viewer. Thinking historically is natural but it is alway very unconscious.
Consider how you decide what to eat, what to wear, what to believe, and what holidays you celebrate. All of that is based on your personal experience in the past, your personal history. You are also a product of your family, your city, your nation, your “group’s” history as well. The odds are that you don’t consciously consider why you do what you do or why your parents or nation does what they do and that can easily lead to continued poor choices, unhappiness, and continuation of weak policies that do not encourage the best for the individual, the state, or humanity.
Learning to think more like a historian, something that a good history program in college will insist upon, goes beyond our normal use of the past and shines upon the light of critical thinking, careful analysis, the search for further evidence, and the ability to articulate your findings and interpretations to either yourself or others. While there are now dozens of books about how to do well in a college history course, simply reading about it or listening to historians is not the same as learning the skills.
A good history program will expose students to as wide a range of evidence as possible as well as a variety of interpretations. A good history program will demonstrate how to find this information as well as opportunities to conduct such research and practice in reaching and communicating interpretations of the information.
Such a program helps the student become more interested not in the messages that they get from the world but in who creates, uses, and limits information. That leads to an active human being that never makes rash decisions, is rarely mislead or duped, tends to make decisions that have positive outcomes for self and others. That’s great, you might be thinking, but how does that actually work in the real world outside of college. Let’s consider a few real life scenarios.
Imagine you are in the grocery store looking at the aisle of breakfast cereals. The average person might buy based on cost and taste, sometimes influenced by the colors and wording on the box. But a person trained to think like a historian must take a closer look. Beyond the cover blurbs, the price per serving, and the taste, she looks at the ingredients and who made the product. She interprets the information based on what she knows about the FDA and requirements for the information to be accurate. Is it certified by some organization? If so, what is that organization and who is a member of it? She also thinks about how her family eats this cereal. Do they really only eat 1/2 cup or more? Are there really that many servings for her family? A person thinking like a historian is not going to buy a new cereal, she will do research first and that research will enable her to buy the best product for her family.
Imagine you are attempting to choose a candidate for a political office. Many people vote by party or based on commercials but not the person who is thinking like a historian. That person knows that commercials are created by people supporting or opposing a candidate and thus everything needs to be viewed suspiciously. Furthermore she knows numerous examples when politicians lied and told partial truths and then used their authority in negative ways. The historian will investigate each candidate’s past record not just in politics but also in related areas such as business, military service, degrees, and activism. Again she refuses to just accept the official information and goes looking for evidence – she knows how to do this because when she was getting her degree she learned how to do research and what questions to ask when doing it and dealing with information. The result is that she will choose to support the candidate who has the best potential to be a positive political force.
As a historian I know that my questioning of information can annoy those all too happy to follow like sheep. As a historian I know it takes me more time to make a decision but my decisions rarely turn out poorly. If you want to make careful decisions that have great potential to make a positive impact on your life, your family, and your world, consider finding a good or excellent history department and majoring in history. It will not be easy but it really is just a conscious extension of every thing you do today.