Often times when I tell people that I am a history major, there is a sort of pause between me answering what I study, and them responding with an “Oh wow, I always loved/hated that class.” I can only deduce that during that pause the person is pondering, “What is he thinking majoring in history?” Yes I could have majored in pre-med, I could have majored in business, I could have majored in biology, I could have majored in math. However, I find that history has this profound ability to change us as humans.
So let me try to explain to you the reasons why I study history. Though much of them are just intrinsic interests, there are aspects of majoring in history that I am rather fond of.
Firstly, studying history means that I may be used as a lifeline on “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” and get a cut of the winnings or win Final Jeopardy. I study history so that I can be the most entertaining person around the dinner table on Thanksgiving. Ok they are not my real reasons — but if anyone needs a lifeline, I have some student loans to pay off.
When I study history, I have this ability to explore a new world. In this world there are incredible players, sometimes knights and noblemen, sometimes peasants, maybe a president, or a dictator. The incredible part about being a historian, is that I get to enter into these new worlds. Now this isn’t like a time traveller story where I bring back my laptop and introduce them to technology. No, I enter these worlds with the intention of understanding the world. What makes people in the 17th century tick? What inspired the Framers to form the Constitution? How did the roads in Rome impact transportation of goods? All of these questions I get to explore not by spending five seconds on wikipedia, but by entering their world and understanding the conditions surrounding a particular question.
I enter these worlds through books, and through the people that were actually there. Rather than just hearing through the grapevine about events, often times I get to hear from the people of the time!
Being a history major also teaches me to do something rather unique — that is critical thinking. There is no set formula on how to examine a part of history, it is different from event to event, from person to person. I cannot just take facts and report them, because that is not history. No history involves taking the facts and making them actually mean something!
So why do I study history? I have a desire to understand people. I have a craving to learn what makes them tick. I study history because I see people that have stories that need to be told, and through research and evaluation, I and other historians have the tools to study it.
So next time a relative or friend gives you that pause after you tell them that you study history, just remember, there is a story out there to be told, and it is your job and privilege to get to tell it.