What makes history meaningful

Humboldt University of Berlin - Institute for History

Many would say: because one can learn from history for the future. But is that true? Certainly one would no longer answer this question as simply as it was 150 years ago, when the prince's offspring were taught history in order to learn examples of correct political action. History does not simply repeat itself, and today we are becoming more and more aware that we have a future ahead of us that will be so completely different from the past - just think of the digitization of the world, which hardly anyone did 20 years ago Had a clue and for whom history cannot readily provide instructions. Then why bother with the past?

A first answer to this: because history already teaches us that nothing will stay as it is. In the meantime, we are not only discussing in historical studies that political and economic systems used to be different from today. Rather, today we also ask about the historical variability of bodies, feelings or social values. Almost everything that we take for granted, perhaps even natural, today turns out, on closer inspection, to have evolved over time and thus to be changeable. Anyone who studies history learns that things are historical and that tomorrow may therefore be different than they are today.

A second answer: if you study the monks of the Middle Ages, the American settlers of the 18th century or the Athenian citizens, you learn how different people and societies can be. That which appeared to them as self-evident or natural appears alien to us. Anyone who studies history learns an “ethnological” perspective that opens up a broad panorama of how different people and cultures can be.

These perspectives relativize our present and the way we live. They give us a feeling for how little “normal”, “self-evident” or “natural” our ways of life are. They encourage us to be open to change. History does indeed prepare for the future, but not simply as a blueprint, but as an awareness that we must be open to all possible developments.

In this respect, historical awareness is not only useful for professional historians. In fact, only a few graduates in our field become professional historians. History has become a subject for many, because here - in addition to the historical perspective - you also acquire a lot of practical skills that are of value in completely different activities.

First: With us you first learn not to just believe every statement that you read, but to confront it with other statements. By primarily training with us to trace the sources - i.e. the material behind which one cannot go back - and to classify historical reality based on these findings, one learns to critically question the truthfulness of statements. However, this critical view also applies to the sources themselves: If we not only use historical data, but also examine how they were actually produced, who was interested in knowing this, then we also ask about the informative value of the sources : We criticize the sources. Anyone who studies history learns intellectual independence and is no longer easily ripped off by “objective” data or strong opinions.

Second: In our subject, you have to constantly familiarize yourself with new subjects and, through study of sources and source criticism, become specialists in topics that you had no idea about before. For example, you will deal with economic policy, religious cultures, sexuality, constitutional theory or terrorism from a historical perspective. You can learn to read ancient scripts, learn English in the 18th century, or understand urban planning in the 19th century. If you study history, you not only acquire a broad education, but also the self-confidence that you can work on any field of knowledge if you want to.

Image: Matthias Heyde

Third: Those who study history are not simply presented with knowledge that they then have to learn, but are trained to acquire knowledge themselves, and very often also to decide for themselves what they are interested in. We guide you to develop your own questions and to find out more about yourself. This is why historians can do excellent research; they have a criminalistic energy to find out things and are not satisfied with the first best Wikipedia entry. Anyone who studies history is curious and has a flair.

Fourth: Such results have to be presented, be it in oral or in written form. They are often complex, so we need to know how to present difficult things in a way that others can understand. On the one hand, we have to master technical languages ​​(and also economics or theology, if we are dealing with such a topic), and on the other hand, learn to simplify. Anyone who studies history learns to write and present in a way that others can understand.

Fifth: Because the subject may require a lot of special skills and an interest in the "other", we not only encourage learning these skills (especially other languages), but also study abroad. We actively promote this through partnerships with many universities, especially in Europe. The internships that you complete during your studies are also widely spread, and you not only get an insight into new areas of work, but also create contacts and networks. Anyone who studies history learns a lot about other countries, cultures and fields of work.

With this bouquet of knowledge and skills you can do much more than just history with a history degree. Of course, many of our graduates go into teaching, and of course there are many historians in fields related to history, such as museums or political education. Some also go to science. But they are also very common in newspapers, on television, with publishers, or on social media. You work for interest groups or political parties; more and more are also going to industrial companies, where they work in human resources, in the policy department or in public relations. Studying history means opening many doors to the world.