Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Why History?

My final year of undergraduate school is fast approaching. With the impending doomsday comes a question no one wants to hear: what are you going to do with your major? In my case, the major in question is history. My answer to such questions tend to follow a pattern:

  1. crack a joke about the unmarketable nature of a history degree;
  2. present my dream job of writing for video games, TV, or film (which is far from being directly related to a history major);
  3. assure the questioner that I will take any job to pay student loans; and
  4. claim that any grad school worth going to shouldn’t really cost me anything.

But now I have a better answer.

As a history major, I'm (unsurprisingly) passionate about historical awareness. It helps us understand the world we live in today by telling us how we got here. To put it simply: living in 2014 and not having any in-depth historical knowledge is like jumping into Lost, season four.

It could be argued that society is more historically aware than ever. In order to be considered "historically accurate", a historian has to jump through the same all-powerful hoops of the Scientific Method. This leads us to believe that history is as true as it could ever be. Unfortunately, this is an entirely unreasonable expectation.

Reason #1: There is no way to objectively teach history. We can never understand an event from every possible angle. What we can do is create discussion that raises questions and considers previously silent perspectives. Yet this isn't how the subject is taught in school, especially K-12. Instead, disastrously, it's boiled down to dates and names and places and numbers to be memorized. All context is erased. Questions aren't asked, because who cares, when you have standardized tests to study for?

Reason #2: History, like science, is not an exact science (sorry, science major friends). You can use all the numbers you want, but at the end of the day, nothing is exact. Science has made life easier in a lot of ways, but it’s still not ideal. Similarly, I’m not claiming that an awareness of the past will prevent people from being horrible in the future - that will always happen, sorry.

The difference is that no one really expects science to be perfect. A hypothesis is a theory. A theory is a theory. A law? You guessed it. It’s a theory. We view every scientific discovery as proof that we are continuing on a linear progression. But historians are expected to not make mistakes, because all we have to do is present the facts, right? Not possible. History is far from cut-and-dried.

This is a serious double standard between history and science, and is an extreme limitation for history. Society demands that historians use a barely-altered scientific approach. Historians (supposedly) need to be objective and rational and look at the facts, but whether you're examining something that happened ten years ago or ten thousand years ago, you can only claim to "know" so much about what happened.

What I'm finally beginning to understand is that we are less certain than ever before as to what history is. What's the difference between history and memory? What's the point? Does remembering the past do more damage than good? My mathy and sciencey friends ask me these questions all the time. They are super-relevant questions, and I can't provide succinct answers.

Maybe I'm being a bit too optimistic, but to me, the fact that I’m asking all these unsettling questions about my major choice is a sign of growth. It means that I'm learning to see connections where I didn't before. I'm curious about exploring new perspectives, and I'm interested in creating my own. The world is more interconnected than I ever realized and history is the paper-maché that holds the collage together. When I spend years working in the service industry while my bachelor's degree gathers dust on a shelf, I'll look back on this attitude of mine and sob into my Ramen, but right now I'm loving it.