Why my major matters : History

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Why my major matters : History

Cody Boland, Bethany Bekas-Yarker

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Whenever somebody asks me my major, I respond that I am a history major.

“Oh, so you plan on teaching,” they usually reply. To which I respond, “no, not really.”

History is one of those majors that many people don’t fully understand, and they think only results in a teaching position. This viewpoint can be frustrating, but I start to understand when I consider they’ve probably had only minor exposure to history in school, and it’s not even worth mentioning that trashy cable channel that sold out a long time ago.

The majority of people instantly relate my major to a period of uninteresting rote memorization that they had to perform for some high school constitution test, which is unfortunate, because that is not what history is about at all.

History is a discipline, and a highly important one at that. It’s easy to spout off clichés like “if you don’t know the past, you’re doomed to repeat it,” but historians truly do engage in work that is paramount to understanding the world we live in. After all, people — both individuals and the societies they comprise — are defined by the actions they perform during their lives. Historians analyze those actions using a variety of methods and evidence in order to reach ever-evolving conclusions.

When I first started my college education as a history student, I was astonished to learn how many things we just don’t know. My initial view on history came from a high school textbook. Everything was orderly, each era had a few key phrases I had to memorize, and the discussion questions at the end of each chapter all had a clear answer.

Well, it turns out the world is far more complicated than that textbook led me to believe. History is not some kind of true/false test that everyone can agree on, but rather an extended argument about the nature of the world. I was in class one time when a student said he was going to write a paper on the causes of World War I. The professor responded, “Good luck. I wrote my graduate thesis on that subject, and I’m still not sure I’ve got it figured out.”

So why does my major matter? I suppose I could try to get all insightful and give a laundry list of reasons about why the informed study of what came before us is important, but that doesn’t really affect me — and history has taught me that people tend to operate based on self-interest. I think my major matters because of the mental skills it has helped me hone.

My history degree has taught me a number of skills that I can apply to several different fields. My coursework demands that I take information from multiple sources, synthesize it in order to reach a conclusion, and then communicate that conclusion to others. This is a valuable skill in the corporate world where businesses must constantly analyze information and form conclusions about the best course of action to take. It is also a great skill in the world of journalism, since reporters collect information, analyze it, and then present it to the public.

In the course of my studies I have had to work both as an individual and with a group, and have had to present and defend a number of arguments — some of which I did not even agree with — a skillset that would be helpful for a job in public relations.

My major matters because it teaches a person how to critically think about a set of data and then create new ideas that did not previously exist. My major has afforded me with these skills, and I can apply them to any of the fields that I have previously mentioned. Plus, I could probably be a teacher too.     

-Cody Boland

History is not a field concerned with the memorization of dates and names. It’s not crap propagated by the History Channel or the practice of dressing up in antiquated costumes and reenacting civil war battles.

In reality, it is a field that analyzes data and encourages its scholars to analyze the world around them.

History is the mother of all social sciences. Any study of Aristotle’s and Plato’s philosophies is nothing without understanding the society that surrounded them: ancient Greece. Modern military sciences and political sciences would be nothing without putting the events that they study on the timeline of greater historical significance. For instance, any modern study of Afghanistan would be incomplete without the prior knowledge of the previous conflicts in the region.

History is versatile field that provides an abundance of career opportunities. 

I’ve switched my degree plan four times, and never did I veer away from my history major. 

As a doe-eyed, eager freshman, I bravely took on my history degree with a pre-law honors minor with hopes to become a political speechwriter. I actively followed politics, and even campaigned for Peter Roskam (R., Ill.). I even threw a Super Tuesday party in my Bayliss dorm room — attendance was not stellar. 

It was during the course of a required philosophy and logic class that I realized law school would not be the idealistic world of intellectuals who would all someday run this country. I also realized the candidates I previously backed, like Roskam, were more consumed with raising money than anything they had said in any of their pre-tested, uninspiring speeches.

I stumbled.

Still in love with the study of history, I tried education classes, then tried a minor in economics, and finally decided to take a break from academia until I could figure what exactly I planned to do with my potential degree. 

I worked. Nights, weekends, holidays I found myself surrounded by a group of individuals who did not seem to value education, let alone history. In the doldrums,  I figured out what I wanted to do with my life: write.

It wasn’t the required ENG 180 and 280 classes that allowed me to improve my writing or encourage me to write more. No, it was my history assignments and excruciatingly brutal blue-book essay exams that allowed me to intellectually challenge myself and really master my written voice.

I would not be a competent writer today if it had not been for understanding how to write a clear, persuasive history research paper. History is really the only field in which you analyze documents from the past, interpret their greater meaning and then make one concise argument from the knowledge you gained.

Even with the 15 hours of classes I’m taking to finish my English minor, it’s my history class that continues to guide my writing the most. 

Why does history matter? History matters to me because it has given the one skill I plan to use for the rest of my life.
Bethany Bekas-Yarker  

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