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Why Study History?

Reflections from Recent Writers

Norm Augustine, “The Education Our Economy Needs,” Wall Street Journal (September 21, 2011)

Norm Augustine is a retired chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin Corporation and a former Undersecretary of the Army. 

“Now is a time to re-establish history’s importance in American education.

It’s not primarily the [lack of] memorized facts that have current and former CEOs like me concerned. It’s the other things that subjects like history impart: critical thinking, research skills, and the ability to communicate clearly and cogently. Such skills are certainly important for those at the top, but in today’s economy they are fundamental to performance at nearly every level. 
In my position as CEO of a firm employing over 80,000 engineers, I can testify that most were excellent engineers—but the factor that most distinguished those who advanced in the organization was the ability to think broadly and read and write clearly.”

David W. Leebron, “Reflections on the Revolution,” Rice Magazine (Summer 2016)

The President of Rice University, a legal scholar by training, has made the following reflections about the Fourth of July. What he says about universities applies to liberal arts colleges as well.

“The study of history and the study of ideas (and, of course, the history of ideas) have always seemed to me to be among the most defining attributes of a university. . . . Those who do not understand the past—and its influence on the present—are unlikely to find enduring solutions to our problems or the common ground on which to debate them.

In so many of the contentious debates of our time, history, philosophical ideas and cultural chasms lie at the heart of our disagreements. Universities [and colleges] play a crucial role in fostering this critically important examination of history and social ideas. We hear today much discussion of the humanities, and some question why we should continue to study them. . . . [W]ithout such disciplines as history, philosophy, religion and the study of other cultures, we would be far less well positioned to understand the implications of history for us today, or how to build upon that history to realize the most fundamental values and aspirations of the evolving American republic.”

James Grossman, “History Isn't a 'Useless' Major. It Teaches Critical Thinking, Something America Needs Plenty More Of.” Los Angeles Times (May 30, 2016)

James Grossman is the executive director of the American Historical Association. 

“Over the long run . . . graduates in history and other humanities disciplines do well financially. History majors' mid-career salaries are on par with those holding business bachelor's degrees. Notably these salary findings exclude those [history graduates] who went on to attain a law or other graduate degree.”

The utility of disciplines that prepare critical thinkers escapes personnel offices, pundits and politicians (some of whom perhaps would prefer that colleges graduate more followers and fewer leaders). But it shouldn't. Labor markets in the United States and other countries are unstable and unpredictable. In this environment—especially given the expectation of career changes—the most useful degrees are those that can open multiple doors, and those that prepare one to learn rather than do some specific thing.

All liberal arts degrees demand that kind of learning, as well as the oft-invoked virtues of critical thinking and clear communication skills. History students, in particular, sift through substantial amounts of information, organize it, and make sense of it. In the process they learn how to infer what drives and motivates human behavior from elections to social movements to boardrooms.

Employers interested in recruiting future managers should understand (and many do) that historical thinking prepares one for leadership because history is about change—envisioning it, planning for it, making it last. 

Everything has a history. To think historically is to recognize that all problems, all situations, all institutions exist in contexts that must be understood before informed decisions can be made. No entity—corporate, government, nonprofit—can afford not to have a historian at the table. We need more history majors, not fewer.”

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