Seeing Double: How History Can Make You Better

Out of Amherst College’s 40 majors, a major in history can sometimes seem an old-fashioned, somewhat out-of-touch field. Between 2008 and 2017, the number of history degrees given to graduates in the United States dropped 30 percent, the most of any significant field, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. As a history major, I’m concerned by these trends, but in some ways I understand them. The writers of history have always held frustrating biases, and in today’s fast-moving world, the lessons of history often seem obsolete. Yet, studying history offers many benefits beyond what one might expect at first glance.

By definition, history can give students a better understanding of the past. Defenders of the field also contend that history helps students understand the present. But few have argued that history can help students understand their personal lives.

Imagine this: Your friend Maria texts you in the middle of the night asking for advice. Her boyfriend, Carl, has been acting strange lately, canceling appointments at the last minute, not responding to messages and traveling out of town.

Naturally, you might be concerned and want to get to the bottom of the issue. You would think back to your past experiences with Carl to get a better sense of his motives. You would ask Maria about her relationship to find out what may have caused his change in behavior. You might even go back through Carl’s social media to pick up any clues on the recent events in his life. Once you have an idea of what might be going on, you’d be able to help.

A concerned friend or family member might take some or all of the above steps. But those steps are analogous to the methods of thought that go into the study of history. Historians examine past events to draw a better understanding of the present. Why is the Middle East so unstable today? Historians look at documents, journals and other evidence to determine that the answer lies in economic trends, the region’s distant past and the decisions made in the great second-grade schoolyard that is world politics.

Fields like anthropology and psychology use similar methods of deduction, but history utilizes one tool better than any other field: concrete examples. History often involves discussion of abstract ideas, but these ideas are always firmly-grounded in real events involving real people. In that way, it mirrors real life, where the decisions we make are based to a large degree on one’s tangible surroundings.

Students of history have to extract meaning from these real-life stories, just as everyone attempts to do in their own lives. Extracting such meaning is not always easy. When dealing with matters as personal and potentially controversial as real events, historians constantly have to be on guard against their own biases or preconceptions. Yet far from diminishing the value of the field, the potential pitfalls train us to face the similar struggles we undergo in real life.

History also provides an acute understanding of how time works. As people go through their lives, they tend to struggle to keep up with old friends and are often challenged to accept changing times. History can make that transition easier. Just like ourselves and our friends, history is always growing and shifting with each passing year — studying it forces students to get comfortable with the idea of change.

History also helps you understand yourself. Think of your own past. Your experiences define you as a person and continue to forge your strengths and your weaknesses. Looking back on your own memories with a critical eye can reveal the kind of person you are. Just as historians look back on the Ottoman Empire to understand how it rose and fell — and therefore secure a better grasp of the implications for the future of the Middle East — you can reflect on your history and learn how to approach your future.

One reason history has so many applications in our personal lives is because it taps into one of the most basic forms of communication: storytelling. Neuroeconomist Paul Zak has determined that children who are exposed to more stories develop a greater capacity for imagination, are more empathetic and have better social skills.

The trend continues into adulthood. Studying history activates the very same parts of our brains. Good historians must be empathetic and imaginative in order to gain insight into the people and events of the past and apply it to their analyses.

History is not just about solving the puzzle of humanity but also appreciating it. Other fields can help you understand why people do the things they do, but history is focused on placing the historian among their subjects as a peer. That’s why the lessons we learn from history are so easily transferred to our everyday lives. History gives us the ability to make rational deductions based on concrete examples, but it also demands a sense of empathy, morality and humanity. When combined, these skills make us more discerning, more understanding and all-around better people.