Boise State recently announced significant cuts in the Department of History. While this is shocking, it is the inevitable result of eliminating history as a requirement. Prominent Renaissance thinkers believed history was among the most important subjects one could study. The Renaissance in turn launched the Western world’s greatest period of innovation and discovery. I don’t think that’s an accident.
I was fortunate enough to be able to retire by the age of 50, and my wife and I spent several years traveling around the world. Feeling the need to do something constructive, however, I was thrilled with the opportunity to replace a history professor on sabbatical. This one time opportunity later led me to regularly teach a Saturday morning Western civilization class.
I want to pass on my love of history to another generation. History is fun but more importantly it helps develop a questioning mind. While there are certain facts that should not be in dispute. we should always question the objectivity of our sources. My class uses a book of primary sources that allows students the opportunity to read the words of historical figures. Frequently students simply take what a professor says for granted. When we talk about the Reformation, for example, I tell my students upfront I am a Lutheran. My students read documents written by Martin Luther, some of which would be considered politically incorrect today and, fortunately, many feel compelled to make critical observations. If they can ask me questions about the founder of my faith, then perhaps they will feel comfortable asking political leaders some uncomfortable questions. They may later ask questions like how they can do their job more effectively or, maybe, how they can start their own business. The first goal of education should be to learn to ask questions.
All college students need to think about getting a job, and those studying history should ask what employable skills they have learned. After I graduated with degrees in history, I had to ask myself that question. I wish I knew then what I know now, skills in writing and research helped me do my work in both the public and private sectors. If I knew that when I was starting, perhaps I would have felt more comfortable selling myself to prospective employers.
One of my jobs in the public sector was writing briefing papers for public service leaders. I tell my students to think about that type of task when answering essay questions; distill the information and make it clear to your “boss.” I also have my students write an argumentative essay. I compare this paper to a marketing document and their task is to convince me to “buy” their argument.
At the end of your career it’s easy to discern which skills helped you do your job. It is not so easy to understand what you have to offer when you’re starting out. History teaches skills in critical thinking, writing and research that will help a student get and keep a variety of jobs.
In my career I was fortunate to work and invest with two creative entrepreneurs. These people were very different from one another but they shared traits of thinking outside the box and willingness to take a risk. While these traits are somewhat innate, students can learn about innovative people and the qualities it takes to be an entrepreneur by studying history. It is my hope history will be restored as a requirement for all students at BSU and the curriculum for new programs such as the Venture College will include a healthy dose of history.