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Sarah Rosenthal '11: History - a history

Walking past the recent Sophomore Concentration Fair in Sayles Hall, I thought about what I would say to any potential history concentrators. Something along the lines of, "Want a concentration that will kick your ass every day of the week, will leave you pale and sickly from hours in the library and will either lead to unemployment or that inevitable graveyard of humanities concentrators, law school? Then history might be for you!"

As you might be able to tell, I have a love/hate relationship with my concentration. I imagine that this is the case for most Brown students. But being Brown students, we don't do things unless we want to, and for me, it's mostly love. So I was disheartened to read that fewer and fewer people are choosing to concentrate in history ("Number of history concentrators falls," Nov. 1). History professors blame the increased course requirements for concentrators in recent years, but I blame a number of unfair yet persistent myths about studying history.

Myth One: History is a dusty, shriveled topic taught by dusty, shriveled people. I have had the privilege of listening to and working with some of the most fascinating scholars imaginable, who have brought immense passion, intelligence and imagination to their work. For instance, when Nancy Jacobs teaches about South Africa, she is not just regurgitating facts and figures; she is telling a story that is deeply relevant to our world, one in which she actually participated. Hearing her talk about how her parents would smuggle banned books into the country for her when she was doing post-graduate research there vividly brings alive the banal, everyday repressions of the apartheid regime.

Obviously, not everyone can tell stories about personal involvement with the history he or she teaches. ("I remember this time that Lucius Domitius Aurelianus and I got soooo wasted after the defeat of the Goths at the Battle of Naissus — that was a night for the history books!") That doesn't make these contributions any less valuable, either to academic discourse or to the world at large.  

Which leads me to Myth Two: history is pointless. As any good Brown student knows, Western academia has until recently been dominated by a homogenous racist imperialist hegemonic blah blah blah. Joking aside, it has been the project of many historians in the modern period to undermine and correct this imbalance. They speak up for those who were considered to have no history, or whose history was manufactured for them to fit a pernicious agenda, and help them refute the myths that were tools of their oppression in the past and continue to be detrimental to their everyday lives.

Besides, it only takes a cursory look around you to see how relevant history really is.  There are parts of this country that are still fighting the Civil War. As I found out when I spent last semester in England, there are parts of that country that are still fighting over the 500-year-old legacy of the English Reformation. I'm not one of those who thinks that you can divine the future from looking at the past, but pursuing the discipline allows you to see patterns that you otherwise might have missed.

Myth Three: History is a ton of work with no payoff. I won't deny the first part of that statement. Taking a history class (a good one, that is — as in any discipline, there are some classes that are more rewarding than others) is the equivalent of removing your brain from your cranium, stretching it out like taffy and then trying to shove it back in the same small space and use it again. In other words, it's tiring.

But there's also so much to love. After I described the various obscure honors thesis topics of the other concentrators in my section to a non-concentrator friend, she very sweetly observed, "You're all just weirdos in your own way." Like the lovable misfits on "Glee," history concentrators are passionate about what we study for its own sake, because God knows those long days spent in the Rock are not going to make us much money or give us much social cred.

Perhaps most importantly, history gives us a sense of where we are. Brown, where 86 percent of students graduate within four years, necessarily has a short institutional memory. (Why, just the other day, I heard someone on the street refer to Store24 as "Tedeschi!" Tedeschi, I say!) Without the study of history, we'd all just be floating around with no idea of why things are the way they are, victims of fatuous connections, false assumptions and superficial conclusions that can be easily manipulated by the mendacious or power-hungry.  

So put aside the sexiness of "Television Studies" or "Color Me Cool" and pre-register for a history class for Spring 2011. I promise, you won't regret it.

Former Herald Opinions Editor Sarah Rosenthal's '11 column space has been bought and paid for by Big History.


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