Published Date

October 21, 2018

Resource Type

AHA Resource, Booklet, Essay, For Departments, For Professional Development, For the Classroom

AHA Topics

Academic Departmental Affairs, Career Paths, Professional Life, Teaching & Learning, The History Major, Undergraduate Education

This essay is part of the AHA’s Career for History Majors Booklet.

By Claire Bond Potter

When students ask why I chose a history major in college, I tell them the truth: I didn’t. But when I think back to what I got from history courses while pursuing another major, the reasons I came to love history are clear.

As I traveled through time, space, and culture, I embraced experiences and lives not my own. In dark lecture halls illuminated by a slide at the front of the room, I listened to 16th-century Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci teaching the Ming court to love God through its own Confucian tradition. When history professor John Merriman signaled Robespierre’s final moment of terror on earth by smashing his fist on the lectern, I imagined my own head tumbling into the guillotine basket. After reading about the comradeship of 19th- century New England factory girls, who were disciplined to the industrial clock but freed their minds through reading at night, I wondered for the first time: Who made my clothes?

History’s most basic task is to help us explore the astonishing breadth of human experience. It teaches empathy for people we will never meet and links their stories to our own, while at the same time reminding us that the differences between past and present matter profoundly. We may even begin to notice the past—to paraphrase historian Lucy Maynard Salmon, the first woman to be a member of the American Historical Association’s executive committee—in the objects scattered about our own backyards and campuses. Venturing farther, we will see the world with new eyes, noticing “stumbling stones” that an artist has placed in the streets of German cities to mark the homes of Holocaust victims; an abandoned factory in an American Rust Belt city where union workers rolled Chevrolets off the line; or Catholic churches that commemorate brown- skinned saints draped in indigenous robes.

When you decide you want more tools to explore the past, you will learn that history is a pleasantly slow discipline in a fast world, one that brings you into respectful conversation with the living as well as the dead.

Research and writing are acts of exploration, but they are also acts of deliberation that require taking other people’s ideas seriously, especially when they contradict your own.

History teaches us the skills to assemble and organize lots of facts; it teaches us the patience to try, fail, and try again as we assemble our research into an argument. You may begin to notice the contemporary strength of what comedian Stephen Colbert called “truthiness”—explanations that ask us to mistake powerful feelings for knowledge. At this stage, you will know to evaluate other people’s research, look at a problem from as many plausible angles as possible, privilege primary accounts about the period or person in question, and dig into secondary sources.

As you commit to historical research, perhaps as a history major, you will learn when it is important to be in conversation with others, in person or online, and when it is best to explore your own mind. “Much of the historian’s work is necessarily lonely,” former AHA president Linda K. Kerber reflected in 2006. “We generally read alone in a quiet room, we write—on paper or on a computer screen—alone, we plot our plans for classes alone.” Attempts to understand others, whether in the present or the past, require a balance of solitude and connection. Under such circumstances, historians cultivate empathy (the capacity to see, feel, and interpret the inner lives of others) as well as the detachment that allows them not to get caught up in one truth at the expense of another. Of course, when we are alone we are not really alone. Historical study populates the imagination with engaging people and ideas that illuminate the human past; introduces us to larger historical, political, social, and cultural transformations; and allows us to reflect on the choices and challenges of the world we live in now.

Whether or not you go to graduate school in history, you will know you have become a historian when you have learned to love research, not just for the many stories contained in old archives but also for the satisfaction of writing new stories.

“A poet loves words, a painter loves paint,” historian E. P. Thompson explained to an interviewer in 1976. “I found a fascination in getting to the bottom of everything, in the sources themselves.” Conveying that knowledge to others—whether as a teacher, a journalist, a lawyer, or in any other profession in which historians share their talents—requires the cultivation of narrative techniques that are the equal of those mastered by any novelist.

A few years after graduation from college, I found, to my great surprise, that history courses I had chosen almost at random had fanned intellectual and creative desires that couldn’t be satisfied unless I went to graduate school and became a historian myself.

Most people who study history don’t become historians or even history minors or majors. Instead, studying history helps them use their knowledge of the past to think about the present.

It helps them tackle puzzling problems by asking the right questions, doing research, and distinguishing good sources from poor ones. Perhaps most important, the study of history helps us become more human— developing empathy and compassion as we learn to understand not only our own past but the pasts of people unlike us whose lives and futures are tangled up with our own.

Claire Potter is professor of history and executive editor of Public Seminar at the New School in New York City. She is co-editor of Historians on Hamilton: How a Blockbuster Musical is Restaging America’s Past (2018).