Why I’m Glad I Majored in History

Given my occupation, this title may suggest a one-line post:

I studied history in college; I teach history at a college.

But I rarely draw very much on the historical knowledge I acquired from the fine professors of the William & Mary history department. I did take a lot of modern European history courses there, but I suspect that the content of my Modern Europe course reflects my graduate studies more than anything I remember from college. I’m sure that’s true of all the diplomatic and military history courses I teach.

And consider that my research is primarily at the intersection of the histories of religion and education. I was one class shy of a religion minor in college, and several of those courses were historical, but my major coursework rarely dealt with the history of Christianity (I doubt I heard the word Pietism in my time in Williamsburg), and not at all (that I can recall) with the development of higher education.

I’d also add that it’s hard for me to tell whether my undergraduate studies produced the kind of spiritually formative benefits that I tend to emphasize in my own thinking about higher education and scholarship. I have no doubt that God was working through my major to shape me, but I certainly paid little attention to the relationship between my faith and my learning — nor did I have professors who modeled Christian scholarship for me.

James Blair Hall, home of the William & Mary history department
The department hadn’t actually moved to Blair Hall when I graduated, but it looks a lot better than the post-WWII edifice where I took most of my History courses at William & Mary

So why am I so glad that I chose to major in history at William & Mary rather than going ahead with my original international relations/pre-law track? What did I do with those studies — or, more accurately, what did those studies do with me?

Despite the fact that I’m the rare history major who became a historian, I think that my answers (and I’ll limit myself to three) will sound an awful lot like those we get when we ask such questions of our alumni who have gone into business, publishing, ministry, law, and other fields…

1. Majoring in history helped me learn how to learn.

I think I have an innate intellectual curiosity, but the fact that I’m able to feed it readily and acquire new knowledge (again, Pietism) tells me that it’s less important what my history courses taught me than how they taught me to learn. It’s perhaps the basic skill set that we seek with our own students: if we do what we claim to do, our majors will come out of Bethel able to ask questions well, to identify and evaluate sources, and to read them effectively. I draw on such abilities in my teaching and scholarship, but also as a voter, consumer, parent, church member, etc.

Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi
Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi, the cosmopolitan aristocrat who pushed for a “pan-European union” after World War I – Wikimedia

A capstone experience seems especially important here. I mentally revisit my undergraduate honors research into the idea of European unity during the 1920s maybe once or twice a year, but the fact that, over the course of a few months, I was able to turn myself into one of the few people in the world who know anything about Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi and Aristide Briand bade well for my future abilities to read and research on topics ranging from Union naval strategy in the Civil War and British science fiction in the early twentieth century (my two favorite grad school papers) to Pietist models of higher education and the commemoration of World War I in Minnesota.

2. Majoring in history taught me how to think analytically and see patterns in evidence.

I spent a couple days this week in a strategic planning workshop at work. Most of the participants were university trustees who, as leaders of large, complex organizations in the private and nonprofit sectors, are accustomed to this kind of work. They constantly are trying to evaluate organizational strengths and weaknesses, and to identify opportunities and threats on a horizon shifting under the influence of long-term economic, demographic, political, social, and legal trends. It’s future-facing work, not typically the kind of place you’d imagine a historian.

And I’m no futurist. (An exercise that had us predicting not just trends but concrete events on a timeline stretching out to 2024 was not one I’d gladly repeat.) But to the extent that I was able to contribute to that discussion — or similar ones that I’ve had at the department and college level, or in our church — it’s because majoring in history taught me how to assimilate massive amounts of data from various sources and to discern what is and isn’t significant to the question at hand. In particular, studying history taught me how to see patterns of change (and continuity) over time, to relate causes and effects when there are multiple variables, and to do all of this with an eye to context.

And having just named three of the five Cs of historical thinking, here’s one more:

3. Majoring in history taught me how to be comfortable with complexity.

And history quickly teaches its students not to expect that any of those wonderful skills (reading, research, analysis, synthesis) will produce all that much clarity. Mostly for better and perhaps a bit for worse, college left me deeply suspicious of theoretical models that claim to have predictive power. And largely okay with coming to the end of a complex problem and not finding that the waters have become much less muddy.

Those of you majored in history: what did you take away from those studies that remains with you to this day?

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