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Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Department of History

Why study history?

Reasons for studying history

 

Many would say: "Because we can learn things from history that can help us in the future". But is that really true? Of course, it would have been easier to answer this question 150 years ago, when people were taught the history of the federal princes of the German Empire as an example of proper political action. History does not just repeat itself. And nowadays, it is becoming ever clearer that we have a future ahead of us that is quite different from the past. Take, for example, global digitisation. Hardly anyone could have imagined this 20 years ago and history cannot suddenly prepare us for it. So why bother with the past?

 

The first reason: Because history has already taught us that nothing stays the same. When studying history, we don’t just discuss how different politics and economics have become. Instead, we look into how, throughout history, bodies, feelings and social values have varied. Almost everything today that we take for granted – or even consider natural – turns out, upon further inspection, to have developed over the course of time and could, therefore, change again. Thus, the study of history teaches us that all things are historical and, therefore, have the potential of becoming something different overnight.

 

History does not simply prepare us for a future that is identical to the past. Instead, it makes us aware of that fact that we must be open to anything and everything that might await us.

 

The second reason: When we study the monks of the Middle Ages, the American settlers of the 18th Century or the Athenians, we learn how diverse humans and societies can be. What was natural for those people is now foreign to us. Students of history are given an ethnological view of the world, a wide panorama of the potential diversity of people and cultures.

 

Viewing the world in such a way allows us to put the present day into perspective. It gives us the impression that our current way of life is not so “normal” or “natural”. It encourages us to be open to change. History does not simply prepare us for a future that is identical to the past. Instead, it makes us aware of that fact that we must be open to anything and everything that might await us.

 

An awareness of history is not only of use to professional historians. In fact, few of our graduates actually become professional historians. History has become a very popular subject, because our students gain not just a historical perspective, but also many practical skills that will also be valuable in other fields.

 

1) Our students are taught not to believe every statement they read, but rather to confront them with other statements. Above all, we train our students to interrogate sources (i.e. the most original material) and then to determine the historical accuracy based on these findings. In doing so, our students learn to bring the reliability of statements into question. However, this critical approach also applies to the source itself. For instance, if, instead of just using historical data, we also investigate how they were actually produced and consider who would be interested in this information, then we are also considering the informative value of the source: We are critiquing the source. History students learn intellectual independence and are no longer easily swayed by “objective” data or strong opinions.

 

History students learn how to write coursework and give presentations in a way that is understandable to others.

 

2) In this field of study, we have to constantly familiarise ourselves with new subjects and use the study and criticism of sources to become experts in topics of which we had no prior knowledge. For instace, we deal with topics such as economic policy, religious cultures, sexuality, constitutional theory and terrorism from a historical perspective. History students can learn to read ancient texts, to understand 18th Century English or 19th Century city planning. They gain not only a well-rounded education, but also the confidence in knowing they can tackle any field of their choosing.

 

Bild: Matthias Heyde

3) History students are not just given information to learn. Instead, they are trained to acquire knowledge for themselves and often also to decide what it is that interests them. We encourage them to come up with their own questions and to acquaint themselves with these topics. This is why historians are excellent and fervent researchers: they aren’t simply satisfied with the first decent Wikipedia article they find. History students are naturally curious and investigative.

 

 

4) Results of this kind must, of course, be presented, be it orally or in written form. Given that such things are often very coplex, we must be able to present them in a way that is understandable to others. On the one hand, we must have a firm grasp of subject-specific terminology (as well as of economics oder theology, as the case may be). On the other hand, we must also learn to simplify. History students learn how to write coursework and give presentations in a way that is understandable to others.

 

5) Given that the subject often requires special skills and an interest in the "other", we don’t just encourage learning these skills (foreign languages in particular), but also study trips abroad. We actively encourage this through our partnerships with several universities in mainly European countries. There is also a wide variety of internships available to students. Not only do they provide insight into new areas of work, they also give student the opportunity to network and make new contacts within the field. History students learn a great deal about other countries, cultures and fields.

 

In short, a degree in history can open up countless doors.

 

With such a wide range of knowledge and skills, history graduates are by no means limited to just history. Of course, many of our graduates train to become teachers, while many others go on to work in history-related fields, e.g. working for museums or providing political training. Some chose to work in academia. However, they can also be seen working for newspapers, television broadcasters, publishing houses or in social media. Others work for interest groups or political parties, while more and more go on to work for industrial companies in the human resources, policy or public relations departments. In short, a degree in history can open up countless doors.