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Why Study History?


Why Study History?

You should study history if you wish to learn how and why the world and its peoples came to be as they are today.

History asks "How did things get to be this way?" There is nothing in the world that does not become more intriguing and far more mysterious - once we recognize the complicated events and causes that led to its creation.

At the same time, history also recognizes that there is far more to the past than the events that created the world we know today. As the British writer L. P. Hartley once famously remarked, "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there." Recognizing what we share with people in the past, while simultaneously exploring how profoundly their lives differed from our own, provides some of history's most fascinating insights.

History revels in exploring the diversity of the human experience: how profoundly people have differed in their ideas and institutions and cultural practices, how widely their experiences have varied by period and nationality and social circumstances, how much they have struggled with each other while inhabiting a shared world.

History seeks to understand past lives and societies by exploring every conceivable aspect of their reality. It takes as its field of study the entire human experience in all times and places, but does so in ways that pay very close attention to the fine-grained particularities of, and differences among, those times and places.

History analyzes the past, assessing the complex web of causes that help explain why particular events and phenomena occur, but it often communicates its findings in the form of narratives—stories—that make the past come alive as few things can. In this, history straddles the boundary between the sciences and the humanities. It is among the very few modern academic disciplines that can claim for itself one of the classical muses, Clio, of Greek antiquity. At its best, history is a form of literature, an art as much as a science.

As such, history is an ideal undergraduate major not just because of the extraordinary perspectives it offers on the past, present, and future of human beings on this planet. It teaches analytical skills, and is as good a place to learn the craft of fine writing as anywhere in the university. Participate actively in the seminars and small-group discussions that are an essential part of the history curriculum, and it also teaches good oral communication skills as well.

The many skills history majors learn prepare them for an almost endless array of career opportunities. Although some go on to graduate school and become professional historians, the majority go on to careers as diverse as law, business, journalism, public service, even medicine. Because history gives us tools for analyzing and explaining problems in the past, it is an essential tool for problem-solving in the present and future. Any career that rewards clear thinking, good writing, articulate speaking, and the ability to ask and answer complicated questions about how the world works will be open to a well-trained history major.

How to Get the Most From Your History Major

History is unlike many academic disciplines in lacking a mandatory formulaic sequence of required courses that provide the essential information and techniques for practicing that discipline. For better or worse, its subject is virtually infinite. Historians learn their craft by exposing themselves to a wide range of past times, places, and processes to educate their intuitions and hone their ability to ask probing questions.

Although this can be frustrating for students who prefer a tidy, well-defined body of information and rules to master, this open-ended quality of historical knowledge is precisely what makes history so endlessly fascinating. There is nothing that cannot become grist for the historian's mill, so the more wide-ranging a historian's curiosity becomes, the better able that person is to make sense of the complexities and nuances of the world. As a result, few majors give students more choices and greater flexibility in the topics they study.

StairsThe baccalaureate history major requires broad exposure to different geographical regions and different periods of world history. At UW-Madison, history majors are required to take at least some courses in U.S. history, European history, and the history of another major region of the world. They are likewise required to take courses in both modern and pre-modern periods. Any student seeking the best possible training as a history major should embrace the study of widely differing places and periods not because it is required, but because the more different the places and periods we study, the more we realize how different our own historical experience has been from that of other human beings who have lived before us.

An ideal history major involves not just broad exposure to different times and places, but a deeper exploration of a more limited time, place, or approach to historical knowledge. Toward this end, history majors are encouraged to take a cluster of courses all centering on a given place (France or China, for instance) or a given time (classical Rome or colonial America, for instance) or a given aspect of human experience (the history of religion or politics or race, for instance) or a given human group (Jewish history or American Indian history or the history of women, for instance). By taking several courses at intermediate and advanced levels that share a common analytical thread, history majors deepen their understanding and learn how to ask better informed and more rigorous questions that can then serve as models for rigorous thinking in domains very far afield from the focus of those particular courses

History majors are also required to gain key methodological experiences that demonstrate the practice of history, the ways in which scholars take the raw material of the past—primary documents—and assemble those documents into the arguments and stories of which history is constructed. An ideal history major should learn at quite a deep level the ways in which history is made by the act of asking questions and interpreting the past so as to improve our understanding in the present. No history major should graduate from college without having had at least some experience doing original research in primary documents.

Indeed, the ideal history major—as defined by the History Department's rules for "Honors in the Major," and which even non-Honors students should consider as an option—should consider performing one or more original pieces of historical research in a seminar or as an independent project or as a capstone senior thesis. Nothing makes history come alive more vividly than framing an important research question, researching that question by gathering relevant documents, assembling those documents into arguments, and finally presenting one's findings in clear, compelling, rigorous prose. As a capstone experience, the senior thesis in history can become an extraordinary rite of passage in which the student majoring in history finally realizes how rich, how complicated, and how creative the act of trying to understand the past truly is.

One final point. Because history studies all past human experience, it is an ideal major if one's goal is to seek a broad liberal education. Most courses one takes in college have important historical elements if only one remembers to look for and keep track of them. Courses in philosophy or art history or foreign languages or comparative literature, courses in sociology or political science or economics or women's studies, courses in geology or biology or physics: not one of these is irrelevant to history. An ideal history major turns the entire undergraduate curriculum into an integrated search for an ever widening and deepening understanding of the human past.

It would be hard to imagine a more exciting or rewarding intellectual adventure.

Shouldn't I be doing something else?

You’re probably bombarded with anxious queries from parents, relatives, and even friends who are wondering why in the world you are pursuing a degree in History.  Are you putting your parents’ hard-earned money to good use?  Shouldn’t you be doing something useful?    Well, think about this:

  • History is useful.  It teaches thinking and writing skills that are critical in a wide range of professions, from law to business to medicine.  There’s no substitute for being able to evaluate evidence and make clear, concise, and convincing arguments.
  • History gives you the cultural background to function effectively in contemporary society.  In a globalizing world, history provides you with an in-depth knowledge of societies from the distant past to the contemporary era.  It enables you to function as an informed citizen and leader.
  • History is a quintessential example of a “liberal arts” major.  You’ll have plenty of time to seek professional training as a graduate student, whether in business school, law school and medical school.  Now is the time to give yourself the skills and broad perspectives on life that will enable you to succeed no matter what profession you eventually choose.
  • History is an interdisciplinary enterprise par excellence.  You can explore art history, political science, literary analysis, anthropology, statistics, geography, and linguistics and still be a historian.  Think of yourself as a utility outfielder.  In today’s world where multitasking is the rule, utility outfielders have great value. 
  • Historians go on to a wide variety of careers.  Just send people the links on this site that highlight what recent graduates (that’s you soon!) are doing (from the Peace Corps to grad school to working in their own business) and what some of our most distinguished graduates are doing (from US Senator to teachers and NGO workers).
  • People excel at what challenges them intellectually and what “turns on the light bulb” in their head.  That’s why you’re doing history.  And that’s what a first-rate undergraduate education is all about.
  • Wouldn’t life be boring if you only did what your parents wanted you to do?  If you love history and think it’s fun, don’t forget to include this among your reasons for being a history major!
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