Sell Us Your Major: History

This column is devoted to sharing student and faculty input on the various majors offered at Lawrence. The goal is to highlight areas of study that are not well known and to provide undecided students an inside look at things they may want to study.

 

At Lawrence University, like many other colleges, there is a story to the founding of the school’s academics, traditions and standards. In LU’s History Department, these stories are considered paramount to how we understand our community, how we look towards its evolution and how we understand the communities around us. These stories have not faded into the past, but are active in the search for complexity and nuance.

History far surpasses the memorization of important dates or facts. It aims to use the past as a magnifying lens when thinking about issues and ideas in human life across our entire existence. Students use history to form big questions that might not have clear answers. These questions, however, provide a recognition of past events and how these events intersected and persisted to this day.

“To me, studying history really opens your mind to different experiences,” stated Associate Professor of History Monica Rico. “You learn how to question conventional wisdom. You find that statements like ‘it’s always been this way’ could be wrong or even quite the opposite. You also find that statements like ‘this will never change’ could be wrong too because we can find instances where things did change. These new understandings aren’t necessarily fun or happy and sometimes they open us up to terrible things. But they’re how we know and realize our understandings through diverse experiences.”

Generalities are often discouraged when studying history. The search for the specifics embraces the ideals of a liberal arts education.

Senior history major Colby Lewis elaborated, “History teaches students how to interpret primary and secondary sources, to be skeptical of generalities and to formulate a well-supported argument based on evidence or primary sources that build upon pre-existing arguments by other historians or secondary sources.”

Sophomore history major Alice Luo also shared a similar view on history’s search for the specific rather than general. She stated, “Say you’re learning about Native American tribes. You cannot just write ‘the Sioux does this, or the Sioux does that.’ We have to specify which group of the Sioux is being discussed and what particular people were involved. Any generalization can bring biases to a paper or argument.”

Luo realized she was always excited to work in history class, which was her initial draw to the major. She stated, “I’m just always excited to learn about history. When I’m in a philosophy, art history or anthropology class, I always want to look at things in a historical sense. It really helps to look at how the past affects what we’re talking about in class and I think there are a lot of situations where history can benefit the class.”

Rico’s interest in her history studies was rooted in her realization that history can be a tool to look at her other interests. “I’m also interested in art, science, gender and culture,” Rico said. “For me, history encompasses everything I love. I’ve always been fascinated by politics, but with history I can connect the politics today to ideas from the past. History grants this capacious understanding of the world.”

This viewpoint is actively playing out in Rico’s studies today. She stated, “Currently I am in the early phases of a research project where I think about how people connected the way science and visual arts worked in the era of the American Revolution. There was social upheaval. Americans were really interested in showing they can be a country of the future. They used new kinds of art and new science to be this ‘enlightened society.’ I’m really interested in looking at how those things came together in early museums. Today art museums and science museums are separate, but in the 1790s paintings were next to taxidermy, and the taxidermy was next to sculptures and so on. I am interested in what that means.”

“It may be cliché,” Lewis stated, “but we wouldn’t be here without what came before us, and that’s exactly what history is. It’s more than just the past. History is the study of what happened in the past and why based upon the sources that we still have today, both primary and secondary. It is the continuous reevaluation and reinterpretation of the past based upon the discovery of new sources or a new interpretation of the sources we already have. As Professor Kern puts it: ‘the past is already and always absent.’ That’s why we need history.”

The pinnacle takeaway from what history aims to offer to students, in Rico’s opinion, has to do with understanding others. She stated, “I want students to learn to question things and to be more willing to question in order to see how things are complicated. More specifically, I want people to be curious about their own past and other peoples’ pasts and to learn a respect someone else’s past. I think this is an important part of inter-cultural communication; to learn what that means to respect a culture or a community. Because history is how we learn about and appreciate our common humanity.”

The history department at Lawrence University is focused on making the details of the past distinct and interwoven into how culture and society functions today. In looking to the past, students can assess how cultures differ and how they are connected. Every culture, whether here at Lawrence or the culture throughout the American Revolution, is surrounded by history. In understanding history we can understand ourselves and find common ground between one another.

 

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