Why Major in History?
At the nation's leading universities and liberal arts colleges, History departments are often among the largest on campus, and the history major has remained popular despite increasing vocational pressures for students to concentrate on job training. Why? Here are four reasons.
First, as one of the core disciplines of the liberal arts, history provides a classic mode of learning. By studying the past, including primary evidence in seminars and honors research, undergraduate majors learn to think with rigor, to write with clarity and precision, to organize and assess evidence, to analyze problems and interpret complex events. Other liberal arts and science disciplines can legitimately make a similar claim: by studying them students also learn how to learn, although each accomplishes this in a different way. History's special appeal, however, comes from its distinctive subject matter, the human past.
Second, then, history is popular. It is interesting. It deals with real people and events, not abstractions. It offers a boundless variety for selecting favorite topics and pursuing personal interests. Everything has a history — nations, wars, ethnic groups, sexuality, jazz, gambling, postage stamps. History is visible everywhere in American society — theme parks, best-seller lists, cable programming, film epics, public controversy (Hiroshima exhibits, national school curriculum, Kennedy assassination). One of the best reasons to major in a subject is because you enjoy it and can continue to enjoy it after you graduate from Vanderbilt.
Third, historical knowledge is important. And historical ignorance is dangerous. In individuals, amnesia is devastating; if we don't know where we've come from, we can't know who we are or where we should be headed. In societies, ignorance or willful distortion of the past is closely linked to wars and catastrophic miscalculations. As George Santayana observed, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Ironically, studying history frees us from its grip. For this reason, modern social movements demanding change--racial and ethnic minorities, women, environmentalists— have searched history anew to find a usable past.
Finally, will a history major get you a good job? Possibly, but not by itself. The same is true for most liberal arts majors. Their goal is to teach you how to think and write and learn. Leaders in American business and professional life, leaders in government and foundations and nonprofit institutions, are intensifying their plea for the campuses to teach their graduates to read efficiently, write clearly, reason logically, and analyze problems against a background of broad social information. They in turn will then train you in particular skills or methods--law, accounting, sales, military, foreign service, production, journalism, music marketing. In our contemporary global economy, individuals may need to learn a half-dozen different jobs in their lifetime, we are told. The world economy increasingly will reward generalist skills of literacy and numeracy over training in particular job categories.
The history major is thus designed for generalists. Majors who want to earn history PhDs, always a small minority, will get their special training in postgraduate programs.
In an effort to revitalize Applied History both in universities and in policymaking, I am happy to announce that the Belfer Center is launching an Applied History Project. Niall Ferguson and I will serve as Co-Directors. What is Applied History? In one line, it is the explicit attempt to illuminate current challenges and choices by analyzing historical precedents and analogues.
updated February 24, 2017