Why Should You Study History?


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To study history is to study change: historians are experts in examining and interpreting human identities and transformations of societies and civilizations over time. They use a range of methods and analytical tools to answer questions about the past and to reconstruct the diversity of past human experience: how profoundly people have differed in their ideas, institutions, and cultural practices; how widely their experiences have varied by time and place, and the ways they have struggled while inhabiting a shared world. Historians use a wide range of sources to weave individual lives and collective actions into narratives that bring critical perspectives on both our past and our present. Studying history helps us understand and grapple with complex questions and dilemmas by examining how the past has shaped (and continues to shape) global, national, and local relationships between societies and people.

The past teaches us about the present.
Because history gives us the tools to analyze and explain problems in the past, it positions us to see patterns that might otherwise be invisible in the present – thus providing a crucial perspective for understanding (and solving!) current and future problems. For example, a course on the history of public health might emphasize how environmental pollution disproportionately affects less affluent communities – a major factor in the Flint water crisis. Understanding immigration patterns may provide crucial background for addressing ongoing racial or cultural tensions In many ways, history interprets the events and causes that contributed to our current world.

History builds empathy through studying the lives and struggles of others.
Studying the diversity of human experience helps us appreciate cultures, ideas, and traditions that are not our own – and to recognize them as meaningful products of specific times and places. History helps us realize how different our lived experience is from that of our ancestors, yet how similar we are in our goals and values.

History can be intensely personal.
In learning about the past, we often discover how our own lives fit into the human experience. In October 2015, a UW alumnus named Michael Stern contacted Professor Amos Bitzan for help translating letters from his grandmother, Sara Spira, to his parents.  Bitzan was able to integrate some of the letters into his class on the Holocaust to bring to life for his students the day-to-day realities of being Jewish in Nazi-occupied Poland. As Bitzan explained, “I realized that Sara Spira’s postcards could be a way for my students to integrate two facets of the study of the Holocaust: an analysis of victims and perpetrators.” And if you have ever seen an episode of “Who Do You Think You Are?”, you’ve seen the ways in which historical research can tell us amazing stories about our ancestors – stories we might not ever know otherwise.

“Doing” history is like completing a puzzle or solving a mystery.
Imagine asking a question about the past, assembling a set of clues through documents, artifacts, or other sources, and then piecing those clues together to tell a story that answers your question and tells you something unexpected about a different time and place. That’s doing history.

Everything has a history. 
Everything we do, everything we use, everything else we study is the product of a complex set of causes, ideas, and practices. Even the material we learn in other courses has important historical elements – whether because our understanding of a topic changed over time or because the discipline takes a historical perspective. There is nothing that cannot become grist for the historian's mill.

What are the benefits of a history major?

When you graduate with your history degree, you’ll have a broader understanding of the themes that unite people and societies, both locally and globally. History gives you the cultural background to participate in an increasingly interconnected world, and the perspective to act as an informed citizen and leader. The breadth of our history curriculum – along with UW’s general requirements – will help you learn to see complexity and to think critical about the challenges that face us, empathize with people who do not share your background or beliefs, and make ethical and just decisions in situations that are ambiguous or lack a simple solution.

Consider these areas in which historians typically excel and their applications:

Studying change over time.
The ability to see trends or patterns in large amounts of information is tremendously valuable in a number of fields, including consulting, policy analysis, marketing, business, and finance.

Placing events in context.
Historians specialize in the peculiarities of region and time that shape our beliefs, social movements, and events. Understanding the complexity of the past can help us untangle and address the social, cultural, political, and intellectual underpinnings of our current struggles.

Evaluating and synthesizing sources.
Being able to assess credibility and reconcile different perspectives allows us to challenge false claims and develop a richer, more inclusive public discourse.

Crafting a narrative.
Historians are storytellers. They pull together multiple, sometimes disparate sources and write clear, accessible narratives that allow different voices to emerge. The ability to write clearly and effectively for a range of audiences remains in demand in all industries; indeed, the National Association of Colleges and Employers ranked written communication among the top three attributes employers seek in a job candidate. Given history’s emphasis on narrative, it is an excellent major for learning the craft of writing and to communicate with different audiences.

Where can a degree in history take me?

The short answer is, “anywhere you want to go!” The department’s 16,000+ alumni include a United States Senator, a producer for the Today Show, an award-winning screenwriter, a former commissioner of Major League Baseball, and the Chief Regulatory Counsel for a major healthcare company. They also include doctors, journalists, teachers, and a restaurateur and a chocolatier – among many others! In addition, nine of the Wisconsin Alumni Association’s "Forward Under 40 Award winners, who are honored for finding “ingenious ways to help others, whether through founding nonprofit organizations, pursuing excellence in their careers, or leveraging their skills in community service,” were history majors as undergraduates.

In short, any career that rewards good thinking will be open to a well-trained history major.

How can I explore career opportunities as a student?

Students in the history major have a range of resources available to help with their job search. The department’s career advisor works individually with students to frame their skills and interests, identify possible internships and professional opportunities, prepare application materials, and network with our alumni. The members of our Board of Visitors mentor a number of undergraduate students, providing advice on current job market trends, cover letters and résumés, and networking skills; our vast and active alumni community are increasingly involved in helping our majors explore career options.

The department offers two courses, the History at Work series, designed to help undergraduates explore career options as well. History 505: Professional Skills in the Major introduces students to the ways in which their education relates to employers’ needs, introduces possible career options through presentations by guest speakers in a wide range of fields, and refines students’ communication skills in professional genres. History 506: History Internship Seminar expands upon this foundation for students who are currently on internship through discussion of common issues that can arise in professional workplaces.

Finally, the programs and advisors with the Letters and Science Career Initiative and Letters and Science Career Services provide individualized guidance in students’ job searches.

Is a degree in history an economically sound investment?

The Department of History understands that many prospective majors are concerned about the economic value of their degree and their overall marketability. While we encourage students to take their own interests, values, and abilities under consideration when choosing the major, we also acknowledge that the liberal arts and sciences may not compare with fields such as engineering or architecture in salary. But consider this: According to a 2015 report by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (pdf), History was the 18th-most popular major out of 137 ranked – higher than all but 3 STEM fields (nursing, computer science, and electrical engineering). In addition, the median annual wage for history majors aged 25-59 with bachelor’s degrees was $54,000, while “the top 25% of history majors earn $85,000 per year or more.” The top 25% of undergraduate history majors who completed a graduate degree (in any field) earn more than $120,000 annually.

All that said, salaries and wages can differ widely depending on whether a graduate works in the public, private, or non-profit sector; the industry or discipline in which they choose to work, and whether they take advantage of opportunities to pursue lifelong learning or professional enrichment. Nevertheless, the data above suggest that an undergraduate degree in history can be an economically viable decision.

For an additional perspective on the social and economic value of an undergraduate history degree, see this op-ed in the Los Angeles Times by James Grossman, Executive Director of the American Historical Association.