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 Frank Valadez

One of things I love best about directing the Division for Public Education at the American Bar Association is promoting public understanding of the law and the legal system. The word history does not appear in that goal, and yet there is no way to achieve it without thoughtful historical study.

Every citizen—entitled to due process; obliged to serve on juries; voting to retain or remove judges—would benefit from understanding that the American legal and court systems did not always exist in their current form. They have evolved for more than 200 years, since they were established in the late 18th century by the US Constitution and congressional action. It is worth considering where our rights come from; the ways that evolving “standards of decency” have led to changes in the ways laws are understood and applied; and how technological, demographic, and other social changes transformed the legal system. Historical study expands our understanding of these issues.

One might also wish to understand—or at least to learn more about—how the longer history of legal systems in human society shaped the American legal system. How did the English common law tradition shape American practice? How did the Napoleonic Code make Louisiana a little different from other states? And what medieval or ancient legal systems, practices, or ideas provide the deeper background for a modern understanding of justice?

Historical study can place our procedures and beliefs in broader, richer context, from which we might learn how best to maintain and strengthen our institutions to pursue justice and defend liberty.

Representative government requires citizens with a knowledge and understanding of history, but the skills of the historian—inquiry, research, use of evidence, logical communication—contribute to successful leadership in many professions as well. Recently, I attended a program on marketing and branding at a leading business school. The readings and discussion focused on case studies from contemporary business history. To analyze the cases, we drew on bedrock historical thinking skills: inquiry (what problems did the owners and managers want to solve? what was the economic context for their decisions?); research (collecting information, including historical sales data and the histories of different companies and brands); and constructing an evidence-based argument (analyzing the data and making a plan based on rigorously collected research). In a world of rapid economic change, the ability to grasp and explain the meaning of change is a skill of significant value in the marketplace.

The study of history can also enrich one’s life outside of the civic and professional spheres by unlocking the meanings of art, literature, music, food, and so on—because everything has a history. Not long ago, I watched a documentary about the impact of electricity on the music industry over the past century. In another example of the professional use of historical thinking skills, the documentarians conducted interviews and presented a range of other sources to show how new ways to perform and reach audiences as well as new economic relationships emerged as the technology of sound evolved. I gained a fresh appreciation for the impact made by artists the documentary covered, and I began to hear things in the music that I had not noticed before.

Finally, history promotes an ethical framework that fosters understanding, empathy, and humility.

The French historian Marc Bloch put it this way: “When all is said and done, a single word, ‘understanding,’ is the beacon light of our studies. . . . We are far too prone to judge. It is so easy to denounce. We are never sufficiently understanding.” The more time I spend studying history, the more I appreciate the variation between and among human societies around the world and over time. Nevertheless, what I do not know dwarfs what I do know. Studying history promotes a healthy humility regarding the extent of our own knowledge and certainties, creating openness to the ideas of others with different experiences, information, approaches, attitudes, and views. In a work environment, this kind of humility contributes to effective teamwork and successful collaboration. The more that diverse team members, partners, and clients are encouraged to participate in the planning and execution of a project, the more likely it is that the full range of the team’s talents will contribute to the project’s success.

This kind of personal and cultural humility fosters an acceptance of the views of others and welcomes them into conversations about politics and government as well as business. It is an attitude that is slow to demonize others for diverse views and one that recognizes the possibility that the exercise of one person’s rights may come at the expense of another’s. It values the participation of as many people as possible in public life—political, civic, professional, and cultural—and it takes an expansive view of who is included in a historical community and a contemporary polity.

Why study history? Because an approach that calls on multiple disciplines to learn about the world provides support for social responsibility, engaged citizenship, and the institutions of democratic societies; sharpens tools for career development; contributes to the enjoyment of life by unlocking the beauty of art and culture; and fosters an ethical framework that promotes the quest for understanding, empathy, and personal humility. A better question would be, why not study history?

Frank Valadez is the director of the Division for Public Education at the American Bar Association. He earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Northwestern University and a master’s degree in American history from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.