A history major

Among the disinterested, the diligentsia, wanderers and partiers, and the assorted other types of students who fill out the course rosters for American history surveys, the almost-contemptuous hard-sciences student always stands out. This course is a requirement for graduation, so this student is usually past his or her (usually his) first year of school and holds the simple, soft lecture-and-discussion course in contempt. This course is of no value to this student, but, far from a passably interesting digress, it actively taking away from the higher, more profitable calling of science. This is a description of a type of student, not anyone in particular and thus may err toward caricature, and I am not that interested in here laying out another banal defense of the humanities when this stock type has a value system that dismisses the pursuit as frivolous. There is a place and a person for this defense, this is not it and I am not that person. Instead, I want to talk about the history major itself.

One of my favorite and least favorite things about history courses, particularly in pursuit of a history major in college, is that it is one of the few tracks that, ideally, dispenses with most or all prerequisites. Every other discipline requires a base level of knowledge that must be built upon at each stage of the progression and it is only after receiving these advanced skills that one is able to branch out into a variety of courses at about the same level. This evolution is necessary to do history and to progress as a historian, but the necessary skills for doing a major in history are reading and writing, which is to say they are almost universally already met by college students. How well a student performs after that point depends on his or her ability to take notes and willingness to actually study. The same is true for other disciplines, too, but there there are more tangible skills that the student has to master. Probably for similar reasons, majors in history typically require fewer courses to complete.

Nor is this characterization lost on students. A history major is one that is frequently tacked on to double major, a supplementary accolade to the real degree. In addition to this group, history majors, anecdotally, consist of the riff-raff who have an active interest in “majoring in b.s.” so that they don’t have to work too hard. I could describe them as the misfit Hufflepuffs of the academic world, but their egos are usually larger and they are choosing the direction rather than being accepted for who they are.

I study history–and did a history major–because I find it interesting. When I teach I try to encourage students to figure out what interests them in the time period and to develop opinions about what we are studying. In my heart of hearts I wish that students would abandon concern for grades, do their best, and allow curiosity to reign, though I am not so delusional to believe that it will actually happen. When it succeeds, when that [contemptuous] scientist engages with the readings, then I consider that a success. History has real lessons and real technical skills that it can impart to aspiring students, but I genuinely believe that one of its most important ones, as David Foster Wallace put it in his Kenyon commencement address, to inspire people to think and consider beyond themselves. The freedom the degree offers is not, ideally, a major in “b.s.,” but a major in curiosity.

One thought on “A history major

  1. Heh. I switched from the (computer) science degree to the history degree because of a professor who was able to tap me into that curiosity and fire a willingness to read and study. I was always a bad grades/good test scores kind of smart kid (to paraphrase Lev Grossman), but was surprised when a course taken out of mild interest and to fulfill an elective ended up driving my academic career in a different direction. I will admit, it was distinctly uncomfortable at first to move out of the world where there were right answers and wrong answers and move into one where no answer was wrong so long as you could come up with a good argument and defend it.


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