Why is History Still Relevant?

Padmini_History
Art by Padmini Muraletharen

Caroline Nickerson

Sophomore, History major

Perhaps the most difficult part of being a history major is the constant justification of this field’s value. The gulf between scholars of the humanities and those of STEM disciplines occasionally feels impossible to broach; for instance, a biology major will inquire (innocently enough) as to what “question” history attempts to answer, while a given history major will, more often than not, stare blankly at nothing in particular when confronted with technical explanations of scientific research. Though scientists work to make science more accessible (thank you!), many consider history’s relevance in today’s world to be shrouded in mystery. Well, no longer!

Modern society tends to value (and fund) ventures with a readily observable application. Scientific research tends to focus on a need (such as seeking a cure to a disease or a more efficient fuel source). Though this is indeed invaluable for humanity’s progress, equally important is an understanding of this progression and of human beings in general. Dr. Mary Watt, Associate Professor of Italian and Department Chair of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures, sheds some light on the subject.

When asked why she studies History, Watt relayed an anecdote from her childhood. She stated that she has always had a penchant for the people of the past, stemming from her “fascination with my connection to them.” She wanted to know “when their story ended and mine began.” She pointed to Sunday school as sparking her interest, as there she was “confronted with the Romans.” This led her to seek “how Romans became Italians, hoping to “go back and trace their journey.”  Furthermore, Dr. Watt points to reading about the graffiti in Pompeii as a watershed moment, as the words on the walls were “not much unlike the thoughts we have as modern people.”

A particular example is the phrase “cave canem,” which is Latin for “beware of the dog.” This resonated with Dr. Watt, as she “was struck by how the language of Latin became the one I was speaking.” Dr. Watt’s insight that “people 2,000 years ago were writing beware of the dog,” prompted her to investigate “how much these humans of the past were like me.”

Dr. Watt believes that, just as study of history allows her to better understand her own life, learning history can broaden a student’s own idiosyncratic perspective.  As Dr. Watt explains, “In each student’s life, there will be a past, present, and future. In order to understand this structure, we have to understand ourselves as a microcosm in a macrocosm with a past, present, and future.” After study of this structure, students can better “understand and make sense of the bigger picture.”

Though Dr. Watt’s field, medieval Italian history and culture is not modern, she feels that study of this variety of history can enrich a student’s life, as even older history beyond America is “the same journey.” Dr. Yumiko Hulvey is of a like mind. An Associate Professor of Japanese Literature, Dr. Hulvey teaches the combined historicity and literary value of ancient Japanese texts, including samurai war tales and the “Tale of Genji.”When asked why she chose to study ancient history, she also pointed to an increase of understanding regarding the human condition, replying, “If you go back to real origins, you go back to mythological, legendary times. You go back to the beginning of the psyche of the group.”

She believes, “The further you go back in history, the more you get the germinal essence of human beings.” Dr. Hulvey considers herself lucky that she “likes old things” as she feels that “they’re really rather new.” She studies things that are “so old that nothing ever happened before,” making them “new stories.” She pointed to the Biwa Hoshi as an example. As the blind tale singers who relayed samurai tales, the topics they chose to spotlight (feats of bravery and nobility among them) reveal key insights regarding what human beings value and choose to remember. She also believes that history “has a tendency to be repeated,” giving the study of history value in that it allows scholars to “learn lessons to prevent mistakes from happening again.”

History continues to fascinate countless generations, but it is also offers insight into both the self and humanity in general. When asked for some commonalities between past and present, Dr. Watt emphasized that “human thought is a much slower evolutionary process than we like to think. We have the same concerns as people of the past. We are all ultimately seeking the same thing.” No matter the era, “at the end of the day, we are all looking for a home.” Due to the fact that, “the human thought process and set of concerns has not changed that much, we can read Homer, and it still makes sense to us. People say the ‘world is a very different place’—how so, do they have different furniture? We have kindred spirits. The world isn’t so scary.” No matter who we are, “we are all on the human journey home. In our lives, as well as at the end of our lives, we all just want to flake out on our cosmic couch and be happy.”  Though, as Dr. Watt says, “We have different stuff,” human beings, past and present, “still care about the same things: love and family.”

Dr. Hulvey firmly believes that “things that happen in the past were the first of their kind to happen in the world.” The origins are the purest representation of human nature, and study of them increases understanding of mankind. Dr. Watt’s final thoughts come in the form of a question: “We’re out of the caves, but the question is how far? How far out the cave will we go?” The study of history may have the answer. History matters.

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