Dispatches from the History Major: "5 Things NOT To Say to a History Major"

I hope you are enjoying “Dispatches from the History Major.” Here is the next installment from Messiah College sophomore history major James Mueller.  –JF

Studying history changes the way I look at the world. It’s hard to pin down exactly, but my approach to tackling problems is just…well…different. One of my professors described this phenomenon to me as a type of second “vison” that historians develop. This vison allows the historian to recognize that the inescapable medium of time saturates everyone and everything; and this, as Jim Cullen puts it in the introduction of his book Essaying the Past, allows the historian to see through the veneer of ‘timeless truths’ and develop a true sense of “timefulness.”

This is a blessing and a curse. I love that history can be a lifestyle; however, the more I put this history-as-a-lifestyle thing into action, the more I find myself living as an isolated minority in a world which refuses to think historically.

Being a minority can sometimes make conversations frustrating, confusing, and even a little humorous. So, if you’re reading this as one of those people who is in the majority and you want to make life a little easier for your history major friends, then here are several things you may want to stop saying:

1. “Let me tell you about our generation…”

Humans have this tendency to describe their own generation as the most intelligent and progressive to have ever walked the earth, or as the most idiotic and degenerate. We love to deal in superlatives, and we love to place ourselves at the climax of the human historical narrative.

Studying history makes you reevaluate such innate, human narcissism. You recognize that every generation had its saints and its sinners and that every generation thought it was embroiled in some epic battle between good and evil. Looking at important historical moments makes you recognize that the moments in your own present may not be as important as you once thought. It’s a hard lesson to learn that you’re not the center of the universe, but the very essence of history makes you come to terms with this fact pretty early on.

2. “You don’t know about ‘x’ historical event? Oh, come on – you’re a history major!”

I apologize for not understanding all 6,000 plus years of recorded human history. I must not have been paying attention in class when my professors went over the incalculable decisions, actions, and left-over documents of every human being who ever lived. Silly me.

But hey, why do you only want to talk about history when you’re playing Trivia Crack?

3. “So you want to be a teacher.”

While there is absolutely nothing wrong with teaching, I want to use my historical skills to do a breadth of different things (like to translate, or to write, or to simply be a better Christian). Why can’t anyone ever ask why instead of what?

4. “History never changes”

I got this one as I was checking out the 2nd edition of a textbook for my Roman History course. The lady at the check-out counter said, “I don’t know why they keep coming out with new additions anyway, it’s not like history really changes.”

It took everything in me not to cringe. All the things I had learned about historiography, new archaeological and textual evidence, and the vastness of the past started clattering around in my brain.
How could anybody ever think we understand the past that well? One of the first things my professors told me about history was that it teaches you to, “know what you don’t know.” History is dynamic and interesting precisely because there is still so much to discover about what happened in the past.

5. “You must love the History Channel.”

I loved the History Channel when it showed specials on Attila the Hun, Alaric the Visigoth, and Genghis Khan. But that was in the late 90s through the early 00s. Have you taken a look at the current History Channel listings? Aliens, lumber jacks, and swamp men. That’s not history, folks; however, it sure does explain why everybody thinks I’m going to be a hobo after I graduate.

2 thoughts on “Dispatches from the History Major: "5 Things NOT To Say to a History Major"

  1. #5. The joke used to be that the History Channel should have been called the Hitler Channel, because all its shows were about World War 2. That was supposed to be a dig at the narrow focus of the History Channel–but now it seems like a beautiful image of paradise in comparison with the meaningless dreck they show today.

    #2 An American history professor of mine–who focused on the development of civic religion and religious identity in America–used to joke about being cornered by World War 2 buffs who were shocked that he couldn't elucidate the specific movements of Hitlers 5th Whatever Division in 1943…

    #1 is interesting. The further you get into the study of academic history, the more of an allergy to generalization you tend to develop. This is a positive and necessary development. It's good to recognize that all our generalizations are necessarily imprecise–that there's always more to learn.

    But in jumping straight from an MA program in history to teaching middle schoolers, I've also learned that this impulse against generalizations can be paralyzing. It's really important to qualify your statements, but in teaching younger students, it's also important to be willing to take risks and generalize when necessary.

    If you don't do that, you end up conveying the equally unhistorical idea that history is essentially static. If you just say that all generations are complicated and can't be reduced to a descriptions, what you end up saying is that all generations are exactly the same. And that's quite wrong too.

    So I'd encourage you to avoid rolling your eyes when you hear someone drone on about “The Greatest Generation” or rant about baby boomers or millenials… Because even if the picture painted is not precise, that doesn't mean it's entirely false either. As the historian John Lukacs says (I'm paraphrasing), “Generalizations are like brooms–they're meant to sweep.”


  2. #5 is right on. It used to be decent, but it is far from history today. The fact that the show “Pawn Stars” has more history in it (when they discuss the history of a particular item) than all the other shows combined is telling. Hey, maybe has a history major you can be a pawner?


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