Just another WordPress.com site
“Wow, Stanford huh? Impressive. What did you major in?”
“Haha, yea, uh, thanks. It was hard… to say the least. I majored in History.”
(pause in which conversation loses nearly all momentum)
“…that’s…that’s interesting. What do you do with that?”
I’m no longer surprised when I receive that less-than-enthusiastic response to my choice of major. I understand that it isn’t the most marketable degree, and traditionally I’ve set myself up for either law school or a lifetime of academia – neither of which appeal to me. I didn’t major in History to be marketable. I majored in History because it promised to feed my curiosity and lend some perspective to my narrow worldview.
Still, there are people (hi, mom) who wonder at the “usefulness” of a history degree. Humor me:
*jumps emphatically on soap box*
What do I plan to do with my History degree?
I plan to live, and live well.
There are many perks to being a student of History. Perks that have changed my view of this human experience, perks that have impacted my very identity. ‘What perks?’ you ask with your face all squidgy with skepticism.
We often say that hindsight is 20/20. We study the history of Hitler’s rise to power and scream, “how could you not realize this was a catastrophe waiting to happen?!?” But Hitler emerged in an era of desperation; he seemed to be a strong leader, a man who would bring order and pride to a Country scrambling to collect herself after the humiliating defeat of WWI. Ergo, there was a (teeny-tiny-ultra-fine-ball-point-pen) point in history in which Hitler seemed to be the answer. Obviously, he was not. This is an easy statement to make when you have history laid out before you, with the consequences of Hitler’s reign bleeding on the table.
To bring it down to a personal level, I know solutions I hold onto today may not be solutions at all, so I hold them with humble openness. Conversely, I know that situations that seem insurmountable now will look like molehills years out. Studying History has expanded my perspective and created more room for patience as I endure this process called living.
#2 History is made of individuals
In high school, History was presented to me as a sweeping narrative, a textbook-omnipresent-perspective that was supposedly unbiased. At Stanford, History was broken down into smaller narratives: letters of correspondence, propaganda, portraits, lockets, satirical cartoons, newspaper editorials. Historical events that once seemed simple and straightforward gained a new complexity as I learned about the individual stories that comprised them.
Sometimes we are tempted to think that we are powerless, that our lives are just one cog in an unstoppable, uncontrollable machine. Not true. Our individual actions are what write the larger narrative of history. We are powerful, even in our passivity or inaction. For every action there is a reaction, and we must own our responsibility. You may not write history-altering legislation, but you might have bullied that kid in school, broken that woman’s heart, or raised that child. You are a person of influence – always. All that to say, don’t strut about like a prima donna and think the entire known universe revolves around you (history doesn’t smile too kindly on these types either).
#3 Pendulum swings:
Human beings are fickle. I am fickle. You can look at history and often see how society swings into extremes before finding a middle ground. The “free love” of the 60’s was a reaction to the conservative values of the generation before them. If we feel restricted, we break for the other direction, and we break hard. (Give me freedom or give me death!!) So when society seems to be going in an extreme direction, I realize it’s a matter of time before enough reactions arise to swing it back. There’s a sweet middle ground we’re constantly trying to find, and it’s not worth getting wrapped up in the “latest” extreme.
History has taught me to look at the context of the individual. The context – or environment – you come from has played a large role in your personal development, ingraining certain beliefs or mannerisms.
Some individuals come from Histories of war or strife, and they continue that legacy. Others come from a History of immense suffering, and this has made them into the victim; life is something that happens to them, they are helpless, all of their unhappiness is an injustice perpetrated by the hands of the “other.”
Now, I do not want to undermine the power of personal autonomy or choice. Even if you come from a certain context, at some point you choose to agree/disagree with that context, ergo you have the potential to shape your character. For example, my father was half Native Hawaiian, and he could have carried on the resentment of his full-Hawaiian mother who was beaten in school for speaking her native language. Instead he chose to forgive, to not blame his personal problems on a historical injustice, and to carry on. History does not excuse accountability for personal action.
Studying History has taught me to hold space for those who have come from a different context. I understand that I am a product of my history as much as they are a product of theirs. This has aided my relationships, and brought a depth of engagement I truly appreciate. I don’t write people off so quickly. I don’t assume I know a person with a first impression, but attempt to understand where they are coming from and empathize with that context. On the other hand, I have also been humbled many a time, assuming I know the individual just because I have scant knowledge of their historical context. You can’t study the context then make sound judgments about the individual, nor can you truly know the individual without knowing their history. It’s a fun balance that requires real relationship.
To wrap it up, my studies in history have been an empowering experience most of all. My life is built on the shoulders of many before me, for better or worse. As I learn my personal history (which includes my parents, my community, my state, my Nation, my world) I can better understand the context that has shaped me into the person I am today. By learning my history I move from being a mere product to a co-creator, and I am the better for it.
*hops off soap box*