Why Study History? A Student's Voice

by Jeff Kang

Note: This essay first appeared in the February 16, 2016 issue of the History Undergraduate Studies Newsletter; it is the first in a series of articles Mr. Kang is writing for the Newsletter for a Spring 2016 history internship. Responses may be sent to the History Department at history@wustl.edu.

As a history major in my junior year, studying among intelligent individuals preparing for medical school or studying professional fields such as computer science, engineering, finance, and accounting, I often ask myself, “how can studying history benefit or prepare students in ways that other focuses cannot?” In a world defined by rapid globalization, economic growth, technological advancement, and increasing demand for experts with technical skills, even I sometimes struggle to answer this question.

It is true; most likely, history professors will neither demonstrate how to differentiate convoluted equations nor explain how to calculate the amount of pure profit one can attain from a contract. However, although they may not show how to solve specific equations or provide immediately applicable guidance on how financial institutions, banks, and economies function, they give students the independent capacity to simultaneously scrutinize the context of an argument (thesis), apprehend its significance, and develop their own perspective on the topic. In short, history classes illustrate the vitality and value of inquiring “why?”

Often, students in various majors study subjects such as economics and business without comprehending the notions, ideologies, events, and theories by which the now-accepted foundations of these subjects were shaped. Not long ago, my professor who teaches Early Political Thought stated that he was surprised by the fact that many economics and business major students in one of his classes have not read the eminent historical works of Adam Smith and Marx such as The Wealth of Nations and Communist Manifesto. He went on to enquire whether it is possible for economics and business majors to fully fathom the world economy’s operational patterns without comprehending the history behind it. Which of Smith’s or Marx’s theories did modern nations adopt and abandon? Do similarities exist between Smith’s economic ideologies and Marx’s economic principles?

The professor’s mode of historical inquiry applies to almost every aspect of life: international relations, politics, business, human relations, and so on. How can one possibly engage in diplomacy with any Middle Eastern nation when one does not know a single bit of Islamic or Middle Eastern history? Why do some Middle Eastern nations maintain an ambivalent attitude towards the United States? Why is there so much tension between Israel and the Arab world? While studying history does not give immediate answers to these questions, it enables a person to attain his own answer and opinion by urging him to ask “why?”

The reality that all features of life have a history illustrates that having historical knowledge of a specific area of study provides the same benefits as having historical awareness of another person’s ethnic and cultural background. For having historical consciousness allows a person to interact with an unfamiliar subject more effectively and comfortably in both circumstances. This shows that historical awareness is a necessary skill for communication. In this sense, the academic field of history is an analysis of human relations, interactions, and endeavors that empowers students to become excellent in communication through rigorous and extensive practice and training in reading, writing, discussing, and debating.

By utilizing such communication skills, one can learn to productively analyze subject matter, ask logical questions, and grasp the overall reasoning behind an argument. Apart from helping a student discover why he or she studies a particular subject, such skills will turn out to be very useful in the workforce, where everything revolves around human interaction and communication. No company will say no to an individual that can confidently communicate to a wide range of audiences.

In writing this article, I neither intend to denounce and censure other majors nor aim to promote the history department as the most outstanding area of study in Wash U. I strive to articulate that studying history and other majors in the humanities can help a person understand the way our world works more thoroughly and attain the practical skills necessary to excel within the workforce.