I hate my doctor. I visit Dr. Lee every 3 months. Every visit, he acts like we’ve never met before and asks me personal questions that have nothing to do with my health. I answer them curtly, trying my best to indulge him without being rude.
Before he hands over the refill prescriptions I need from him, though, he asks if I go to school. I always say yes. He asks what my major is. I say history.
He chuckles and shakes his head. “Why?”
It’s a good question. I never answer it. Not because I can’t, of course, but because he’s really just calling me an idiot for not pursuing an obviously lucrative major. Like medicine, where apparently you can make $100k a year writing prescriptions and laughing at history students.
So why do I study history? I have two reasons. The first is practical. The second is personal.
The first: Studying history builds critical thinking skills. I know that sounds like something a middle manager might vomit out at a board meeting, but it’s true. It takes a lot of effort to try and understand the nonsense we call history; so much effort, in fact, that when we put our books down and engage the nonsense we call the present, we’re better prepared for it.
I’m not talking about that “avoiding the mistakes of the past” stuff. The study of history prepares us for problems less dramatic and more intimate. Read Tuchman’s The Guns of August. By the end of the book, can you empathize a little with the oft-petty and infantile European monarchs? Great! The effort that took might turn out to be good practice for dealing with your co-workers in a diplomatic manner. I’d have probably been fired from many retail jobs by now if it weren’t for the patience that I learned from history.
Not convinced? History teaches more than empathy. Take a look at what bestselling author Max Brooks was able to create with his understanding of history (let’s leave his father out of this). World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War is a bestselling “mockumentary” about a fictional modern apocalypse. The book is a loose narrative of personal testimonies that often contradict one another, or hide lies, or include details that might have been remembered wrong. No one perspective can be declared to be the absolute truth. Sound familiar?
Although the zombie element is fictional, the human element is not. Brooks wrote the book by drawing on his own inferences about mankind, inferences gleaned from history, which he studied in college: The Second World War, American imperialism, the public reaction to the AIDS epidemic, and a myriad of other historical topics. Brooks picks and chooses and rewrites little elements from past and current events to craft a storyline that is new yet familiar. The result is a book that “feels real” and illustrates the best and worst about human nature–without having to worry about peer review!
Critical thinking is the practical application of history. The kind that allows you to empathize with others and write bestselling fiction. It’s true that you might be able to learn those lessons elsewhere. That’s why I have a second motive for studying history. And it’s personal.
I went to Germany this past summer. Professionally speaking, I really wanted to look at Nazi stuff. I was walking down the street in Koblenz, enjoying a morning beer and reading plaques. Each one memorialized where this liberal thinker was arrested, or that partisan was killed. The markers were humble and small, almost like simple gravestones.. Then I reached the end of the path and encountered this leviathan that looked like it was summoned out of the sea by some cult:
It’s a monument to Kaiser Wilhelm I, Emperor of the German Empire when it was founded under his rule in 1871. And it is one of the most disgusting things I have ever seen.
The German state flags around the statue are fresh and clean. Upon a semi-circle of pillars is the carved names of all the states of Germany. At the center stands an obelisk, which bears an engraving of an eagle driving away ugly giants and serpents with rays of light. On top of the obelisk sits a gigantic statue of the Kaiser on a horse. He is dressed in armor and riding a horse, as if he’s leading troops in the field (he didn’t). He is beside a valkyrie who carries his crown, showing that the divine loved him. Below the Kaiser are the words: “THE EMPIRE WILL NEVER BE DESTROYED IF YOU STAY UNITED AND TRUE.”
Are you confused why I hate this monument? You’d think a history student would love this stuff. Let me explain why it’s so repulsive: Germany is a nation still struggling with its dictatorial past, but here in Koblenz it is celebrating the accomplishments of an Emperor. An Emperor! As in, “no need for democracy because God chose this one man to lead his people through military strength!” Call me crazy, but that sounds a wee bit like someone else from German history about whom most people would agree does not deserve a statue. And what were the Kaiser’s accomplishments? The careful suppression of democracy and the expansion of his empire through war. Even if you do find these things worth celebrating, it would make a lot more sense to honor the Kaiser’s Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, who did all the work.
This statue was not built by professional historians. It was built by members of the non-academic public–a public that does not see anything wrong with memorializing dictators and glorifying military prowess. A public that looks at a statue of the Kaiser and says “Ahh!” when, if they had read enough about him, would have stood beside me and said “Ew.”
This statue is an icon of my personal reason for studying history. It is a reminder that if we don’t participate in the writing of history, others will. Others who don’t study history as professionals, and thus don’t think as critically about history as we do. I’m not trying to be a snob and insult the non-academic public; I know from my own development that it’s human nature to glorify history. If it weren’t for my years of academic rigor and applied critical thinking, I too would have looked up at that statue of the Kaiser and assumed he must have been a pretty cool guy who wasn’t afraid of anything.
This was a challenge to express. I really need to change doctors unless I can compress this explanation into a nice one-liner. Without expletives.