Why Study History? Revisited
Over two decades ago I was asked to write a pamphlet for the AHA on the reasons to study history. I emphasized the variety of skills involved in history learning, from writing and developing arguments, to assessing evidence, to dealing with the phenomenon of change over time. The essay has been fairly widely used and consistently ranks among the AHA’s most popular webpages.
Recently the London Publishing Partnership asked me to return to the topic with a British colleague, Marcus Collins. The resultant booklet, just released as Why Study History? gave us a chance to reflect on the ways justifying the study of history must now be reframed. Reviewing a past argument is inevitably somewhat chastening—what might have been better anticipated earlier on? Happily, however, some elements still stand up fairly well.
A rationale for studying history today must acknowledge both the serious challenges to the discipline and the dynamic changes within the discipline that have developed over the past quarter century. The more utilitarian climate for higher education and the changing nature of the student body must be addressed, aided by the abundant data about the career outcomes of the history major now available. But the substantial transformation of historical research and methodology has also enhanced the ways we can explain our discipline to a student audience. Finally, additional decades of teaching and reflection, plus the good thinking available from colleagues including history learning experts, inevitably alters, and hopefully improves, the presentation as well.
As Marcus and I considered how to update the argument for history, we began with the recognition that the struggle for enrollments has become far more demanding than was the case in the 1990s. Changes in the economy plus rising student debt have greatly altered the context for promoting the field, while the presence of more first-generation learners enhances the need to address the practical results of studying a discipline like history.
This means, most obviously, that no one advocating for the study of history today can avoid explicit discussion of the kinds of job opportunities that result from a history degree. We can no longer rely on a presentation of the strengths of history education alone. Students, and those who advise them, need to know the practical results of their commitment. The amount of misinformation that has entered public discourse ever since the Great Recession about the career risk of any concentration beyond a STEM degree compels this new focus as well. Fortunately, the news is quite good on this score. Data on rates of employment, clearly competitive pay levels, and job satisfaction all make it clear that the varied careers of history majors rival those of science and business majors. Studying history is a valid professional choice, and we now need to say this vigorously.
No one advocating for the study of history today can avoid explicit discussion of the kinds of jobs that result from a history degree.
Job data alone, however, are not the only spur to a revised approach. The discipline itself has changed greatly over the past quarter century. Several of the new trends contribute directly to professional outcomes: the emergence of public history and digital history most obviously. But the disciplinary shifts also spur student interest directly, providing new ways to explain the connections between historical study and a growing variety of social and personal concerns.
The capacity of history to explore a wide range of topics and to generate new knowledge is something that many students, based on their high school experience, do not fully realize. Many school history programs have simply shrunk, while others have been constrained by new pressures to teach for a test. To attract students, it is vital to illustrate the dynamic features of our discipline. For an increasingly diverse student body, history offers the opportunity to explore different races, regions, and genders, as part of a fuller understanding of the past. This is a vital and valid part of our argument, far more obvious now than it was a few decades back. More broadly still, building on the AHA’s informal motto—“everything has a history”—can be an exciting revelation to many students, part of a sense of seeing the study of history as a process of discovery.
This aspect of our discipline extends to insisting, more clearly than seemed necessary a few decades ago, on the links between historical findings and contemporary issues. The early stages of the coronavirus gave us a chance to highlight the value of historical data and perspectives during a time of great uncertainty. Identifying historical precedents but also emphasizing what has changed since the last comparable experience both show the value of “thinking historically” about the world around us. The same holds true for topics like systemic racism (and racial protest) or political polarization.
Any current explanation of the reasons to study history must, then, take into account employment concerns; a changing student body, faced with a number of new problems; but also the several ways in which the discipline itself has expanded its range—a challenging but exciting combination.
It is vital to invite students to appreciate the joy of history learning.
With all this, the core argument about basic historical thinking skills—the main thrust of the earlier essay—has not greatly changed. Experience in handling varied data, building critical thinking, enhancing the capacity to understand change—these remain our building blocks, connecting directly to the kinds of career success that history majors enjoy.
Even here, however, minor changes were desirable. Making sure students themselves understand history skills is more important than was the case in 1998, not just in attracting them to the discipline, but in improving their ability to explain their qualifications to potential employers. Experience with data contributes measurably to the greater ability of history students in identifying “fake news,” another contemporary strength. The classic lesson, about learning from past mistakes, remains at least as important as ever, but we can also note the opportunity to learn from more positive outcomes in the past, for example by exploring causes of economic growth or factors that enhance social tolerance.
Overall, it is both possible and necessary to offer a wider argument for the reasons to study history than seemed necessary a quarter century ago. Yet along with the new components, a commitment to the importance of history and its role in constructive citizenship remains very much intact. And for all the essential bows to pragmatism, it is vital as well to invite students to appreciate the joy of history learning; here, too, opportunities have if anything expanded with time.
Additional resources from the AHA:
Reflecting the wide range of the authors' experiences in work, civic engagement, and teaching, these 2018 essays suggest some of the many opportunities that studying history can offer students.
- John Fea, "The History Major: Opening Doors to Life in a Global Economy"
- Johann Neem, "Connecting Past to Present: The History Major in Our Communities"
- Claire Potter, "An Education to Last a Lifetime: Conversations with the Past, Stories for the Present"
- John Rowe, "What Employers Want: Thoughts from a History BA in Business"
- Sarah Shurts, "The Landscape after College: Putting Your History Skills to Work"
- Frank Valadez, "The Well-Rounded History Graduate: Professional Citizen, Human"
Peter N. Stearns is university professor of history and provost emeritus at George Mason University. He Tweets @StearnsPeter.
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