Rufus F., a graduate student completing a dissertation in Early Modern European and Mediterranean History, examines the oft-repeated claim that “Studying history will give the student useful critical thinking skills that they can use later in life.”
I think we often forget how odd it is to sell the study of a body of knowledge by emphasizing the skills that are supposedly imbued in the course of studying that body of knowledge. It’s a bit like saying, “Studying geology will give the student a better ability to tell jokes”.
[. . .]
It’s nothing new, but still a bit strange how humanities departments try to sell themselves based on their ability to sneak in other skills. I mean, we live in a historical context, so having a sense of history is actually very useful in itself in making sense of the present: how many political debates have we had on this site that have come down to different interpretations of history? In life, I encounter a startling number of people now who seem to live in an eternal present, in which their society exists, for them, outside of any historical context whatsoever and the past is an amorphous grey zone with horse-drawn buggies. I wonder just how they could participate in their own democracy when they have no sense of how it came into being or how other societies have functioned. They have no historical parallels to draw from. It is never shocking to me to read about totalitarian states that began by rewriting, and finally erasing the historical record in the public mind. Those who do not remember the past have less space to oppose the present.
It’s not just history: all of the humanities, to some extent, give you a broader understanding of the world around you- the world of human beings- and the world within you. Reading the Iliad teaches you about the Archaic age and Homeric epics; yet, it also talks to you about what men do when their own desires come into conflict with those of the larger society. Studying Freud allows you to start writing your own psychological history. Ideally, all of the humanities do this- they help you to create your own guide to being human. Even more ideally, academic departments are a place that society allows for its slow and patient thinking to be done. This might mean that the humanities have to be both a genuine and eternal counterculture in an apolitical sense, and a bastion of cultural conservatism.