Collective memory and the benefits of studying history

History can give you versatile skills for both life and work, whilst teaching you how to maintain society’s ‘collective memory’.

Aristotle is supposed to have once said that to understand anything, we must “observe its beginnings and its developments”. History is more than a series of dates and battles. It is the sum total of all that humanity, and those things that have in some way touched humanity, has done, accomplished and seen; in other words, everything.

‘Practical’ courses vs. liberal artsWhen students look to further their education, they appear to be looking at two choices. These choices are divided into ‘practical’ and ‘love of learning’ categories; an injustice to those that fall into either category. All too often, the sciences, maths and business fit the ‘practical’ model. It is generally held, and reinforced by social convention, that these avenues of pursuit are those which will allow students to find jobs and make great salaries almost immediately. Little emphasis is put on the possible joy one may derive in pursuing these careers, but rather they are sold as a means to an end. The fact that students can in fact find pleasure and adventure in these fields is not considered important, and may even be seen as a drawback. Equally true, according to conventional wisdom, is the idea that pursuing a liberal arts degree must necessarily only offer enjoyment, with little or no practical return. The division of higher learning into ‘practical skill sets’ and educational pursuits for the sake of learning, as if that is a less desirable thing, is a disservice to students, professors and society as a whole.

The pursuit of education, no matter what the field, is a necessary component of a strong, progressive society and the study of history is, as Aristotle observed, a necessary component for the longevity of humanity. In chemistry, to understand how a compound is made, the elements and reactions are measured and observed. Similarly, to understand how society and humanity are produced and maintained there must be those who record, observe and examine as well. These people are our historians, artists, literary specialists, sociologists and anthropologists. These are not academic pursuits solely for the purposes of educational enjoyment; these are serious avenues of study that demand rigour, thought and the development of skill sets useful beyond their professional boundaries.

Why study history?History offers us an avenue for exploring more than just one field, because history touches on everything. It gives us the freedom to look more deeply at those things that fascinate and perplex us. A chemical engineer is only aided in his or her career by knowing where his or her field has been. Despite the adage, we should not study history because we want to avoid the mistakes of the past (although it would be good if we did), but rather to understand where we are headed in the future.

We must understand the foundations upon which our world is set in order to understand how it works. In 1985, historian William McNeill was asked this same question: ‘why study history?’ For McNeill, as for us all, the question was one of understanding what history is; in this case, collective memory. As our collective memory, history offers society, and the individuals in it, a sense of self; an identity. Thus, history is not simply a pursuit of those who ‘like learning’, but something taken up by people eager to understand society, and the choices made in the past and considered in the future.

The study of history is not a field pursued by those fearful of repeating the past, but by those who are mesmerised by humanity. Humans are fascinating, and we have learned throughout the centuries interesting and complex ways of understanding not only ourselves, but also the planet we inhabit. Even if the premise is accepted that history is a wonderful outlet for exploring those things we each find most fascinating, and for maintaining the collective memory of all, it still seems that conventional wisdom says it is not a good major.

What skills can a history degree teach you?The usefulness of a degree in history is more complex and subtle. It is easy to see the advantages of majoring in a field which gives you specific training in, say, the latest software or the newest trends in biochemical analysis; the skills developed are evident and readily recognisable. Conversely, history’s skill set is less apparent, although by no means less useful. First, historians learn to explore the ideas and thoughts which have brought society to its current state. For example, today we have laser eye surgery as a result of pioneering work of Arab doctors interested in optical studies, and the fact that their knowledge was brought back to Europe as a result of cultural transmission during the Crusades. In maths, students are asked to show their work in order to justify their solutions. In history this means connecting computer programming codes to the punch card systems used in the mechanised looms of late 18th century France.

Second, historians learn to situate the current world in our collective memory. Historians, particularly those in world history, are pioneering new ways to connect everyday events across time and space, making our community smaller and at the same time more global. Third, it is not all aesthetic and philosophical. History majors learn how to critically evaluate texts and other cultural artefacts, how to formulate complex thoughts into easily understandable papers and presentations and, perhaps most importantly, how to communicate new ideas to others. These skills are needed in all professions.

In choosing a major, consider not only what things are most interesting for your own good, but also, what skills will be the most versatile and useful for a lifetime, not just a career.

Maryanne Rhett, PhD
(Monmouth University)
World History Association