Letter to a Prospective Graduate Student

Why study history in graduate school?

A promising undergraduate student asked me this recently, not quite in so many words. My answer was inadequate; despite my own advice on the subject, and despite everything going on at the moment in politics and academe, when sitting in my office and put on the spot I floundered amid the familiar flotsam of transferable skills, multiple career paths, intellectual interest, and so on. Here is what I should have said.

Do not study history just because you want a job. No degree — no degree whatsoever — guarantees you the career you want. If you want an academic career, or a career in public history, or a career that involves research or writing or teaching, a history degree may well be a good way to go; it will probably not be the only way to go. It guarantees nothing.

Do not study history just because you want “transferable skills”. History requires skills. So does English. So does Sociology. So does Philosophy. Studying history will hone skills; and some skills are more used in history than in other disciplines. But transferable skills are, well, transferable. There are any number of ways to acquire and develop them.

Do not study history in graduate school just because you like reading about the past. This is a hard one. What I mean is: you can read, watch, or listen to histories without getting (or spending money on) an MA in history. You can consume history, enjoy it, learn a lot about it and love what you know, without becoming or needing or even wanting to become an academic historian. And whatever you may have heard, doing history, practicing history academically, does not boil down to telling stories about the past.

Study history, practice history, because it matters. Study history because you feel compelled, personally compelled, to question it, explore it, understand it, explain it, defend it, and rethink it — for yourself and others. Study history because ignorance of the past, lies about the past, abuses and appropriations and simplifications of the past, even distant or obscure corners of the past, are real and damaging forces in our present. Study history because there are people who do not want you to study it. Study history because pat stories, simple plots, familiar characters, tidy categories, happy endings, are dangerous. Study history because not studying history will give you no peace.

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