by Nick Thornton
I was having an interesting conversation the other day with a colleague about history graduates and the kind of work they went on to do. Apparently, history graduates earn some of the highest wages compared to other undergraduate degrees. I’m not sure how much I believe this but the conversation then shifted to how important the work historians do is.* So here’s my treatise on why there should be an historian in every office.
*disclaimer: this conversation was had between two history majors and may be heavily biased.
1. Historians get context
Decisions are made every day by engineers, doctors, lawyers, scientists, business owners, etc and these decisions impact everyone profoundly. What is often missing from those decisions however, is context. What has been done before? What is the cultural significance of that bridge those city planners want to get rid of? What is the history of racial exclusion that has reared its ugly head in Canadian immigration law again? Historians are hard to BS because they know about narratives, trends, experiments and lifestyles that are impacting society that societies are often not even aware of.
2. Historians know how to self-critique
One lovely left-over from the postmodern era is that almost every discipline has become more self-reflective and analytical. Problems still exist, however. Take medicine. Great progress has been made in the 20th century but the pathologizing of cultural or personal traits has persisted. Trans-folk are treated as medically abnormal and must fulfill a set of criteria set out by a heteronormative medical profession with very little understanding of trans issues. I’m painting a very general picture here but you get the point. Historians have been making great strides to queer history and uncover the voices of trans-folk that have previously been ignored. What has resulted is a much more nuanced understanding of gender identity, a view that is desperately needed in the medical profession, as well as many others.
3. Historians know what mistakes have already been made
At the risk of being a little hyperbolic, Hitler could have used an historian. “Hey, look here fuhrer, you may not want to invade the USSR just yet.” (or as Eddie Izzard put it: “Hitler never played Risk as a child.” Thankfully, Hitler didn’t know that Napoleon had tried invading Russia in the middle of winter too and had a rather tough go of it. But on a more everyday, practical level, historians know things that people have tried and understand the intricacies of social and political movements. An historian can problematize revolutionary tactics just as well as they can suggest little known courses of action.
Now I’m clearly heavily biased here. Offices could probably use an anthropologist, feminist, philosopher and critical theorist as well. Maybe throw in a linguist and a physicist for good measure too. The fun part of history is that an historian is often all of those things (to lesser or greater degrees) and can challenge what’s being done and push for positive change, all with the knowledge and context to back up their decisions.
(Grammar nerds, if you want to know why I used “an historian,” check this out.)